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Abandoning the Black Hero

Sympathy and Privacy in the Postwar African American White-Life Novel

John C. Charles

Publication Year: 2012

Abandoning the Black Hero is the first book to examine the postwar African American white-life novel—novels with white protagonists written by African Americans. These fascinating works have been understudied despite having been written by such defining figures in the tradition as Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Ann Petry, and Chester Himes, as well as lesser known but formerly best-selling authors Willard Motley and Frank Yerby.

            John C. Charles argues that these fictions have been overlooked because they deviate from two critical suppositions: that black literature is always about black life and that when it represents whiteness, it must attack white supremacy. The authors are, however, quite sympathetic in the treatment of their white protagonists, which Charles contends should be read not as a failure of racial pride but instead as a strategy for claiming creative freedom, expansive moral authority, and critical agency.

In an era when “Negro writers” were expected to protest, their sympathetic treatment of white suffering grants these authors a degree of racial privacy previously unavailable to them. White writers, after all, have the privilege of racial privacy because they are never pressured to write only about white life. Charles reveals that the freedom to abandon the “Negro problem” encouraged these authors to explore a range of new genres and themes, generating a strikingly diverse body of novels that significantly revise our understanding of mid-twentieth-century black writing.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Series: The American Literatures Initiative


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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

I want to start by thanking Rita Felski, Caroline Rody, Scott Saul, Lawrie Balfour, and Eric Lott for their invaluable insight, support, and time. I am very lucky to have had such phenomenal mentors and interlocuters. Eric in particular deserves special thanks for being willing to step in as my adviser ...

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pp. 1-21

In 1946, a promising but little-known young black writer named Frank Yerby burst onto the literary scene with The Foxes of Harrow, a blockbuster southern historical romance with more than a few resemblances to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936). …

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Chapter 1. “I’m Regarded Fatally as a Negro Writer”: Mid-Twentieth-Century Racial Discourse and the Rise of the White-Life Novel

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pp. 22-54

The interwar years were ones of hope and frustration for African American authors. Although figures such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Charles Chesnutt, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Toomer, among others, had already achieved minor critical recognition in the American literary establishment, ...

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Chapter 2. The Home and the Street: Ann Petry’s “Rage for Privacy”

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pp. 55-85

One of the central objectives of Abandoning the Black Hero is to reconsider a body of works that in African American literary studies have been devalued due to interpretive protocols that presume blackness as the privileged object of inquiry. This devaluation of course is in response to a corresponding devaluation of blackness in the United States, ...

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Chapter 3. White Masks and Queer Prisons

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pp. 86-129

James Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room (1956), has long been established as a foundational work in modern gay literary history. It has only been within the last fifteen years, however, that the novel has been brought out of African American literary history’s closet, so to speak, where it languished ...

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Chapter 4. Sympathy for the Master: Reforming Southern White Manhood in Frank Yerby’s The Foxes of Harrow

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pp. 130-157

Though he’s now largely forgotten, Frank Yerby was, for a time, granted greater indexical significance—as a sign of racial progress—than nearly any other contemporary black writer. The Foxes of Harrow, his 1946 “reconstruction” of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936), sold millions of copies ...

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Chapter 5. Talk about the South: Unspeakable Things Unspoken in Zora Neale Hurston’s Seraph on the Suwanee

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pp. 158-181

In 1975, Alice Walker launched one of the greatest revivals in modern American literary history with her Ms. magazine essay “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston.” The extraordinary range of Hurston’s achievements, which include groundbreaking novels, autobiography, short fiction, drama, political and cultural essays, ...

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Chapter 6. The Unfinished Project of Western Modernity: Savage Holiday, Moral Slaves, and the Problem of Freedom in Cold War America

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pp. 182-201

Richard Wright was, at the start of the post–World War II era, unquestionably the world’s most influential and revered, even if controversial, black author. His work was widely discussed at home and abroad, translated into many languages, and selling well enough to provide a comfortable life for him and his family. ...

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pp. 202-210

Abandoning the Black Hero has investigated the question of why and to what effect did nearly every significant black novelist of the mid-twentieth century “abandon the black hero” in favor of white protagonists, if only momentarily. I have argued that the authors’ sympathetic treatment of their white protagonists indicates neither a disavowal of blackness, …


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pp. 211-240

Works Cited

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pp. 241-256


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pp. 257-263

About the Author

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E-ISBN-13: 9780813554341
E-ISBN-10: 0813554349
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813554327
Print-ISBN-10: 0813554330

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: The American Literatures Initiative
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OCLC Number: 818818031
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Abandoning the Black Hero

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American fiction -- African American authors -- History and criticism.
  • American fiction -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • African Americans -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
  • Whites in literature.
  • Race in literature -- Congresses.
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