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Date of Award

7-1999

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

Supervisor

Professor Donald C. Goellnicht

Abstract

This dissertation proposes that the work produced by black writers between the end of the Depression and the end of World War II, specifically that of Ellison, Mmes and Petry--and to the degree that it influenced the others, that of Wright--comprises a distinct period in African American literature. Their work is characterized by a concern with the implications of the war for the self-determination of African Americans within the United States and for people of colour worldwide. In addition, these writers explored the effects of the war effort, particularly of the second Great Migration of black Americans from South to North, on the cultural and political strategies of African Americans as a whole. These migrants, the majority of whom had been employed as agricultural or domestic labourers in the South, entered into industrial occupations and left service work in private homes in unprecedented numbers. In their prewar role within a neo-feudal southern economy characterized by white power over the labouring black body, these workers were seen by many contemporary commentators, and particularly those aligned with the American Left, as conforming to a socio-economic category of the "folk." In the South, the black folk had developed strategies for survival and resistance, many of which were contained in their folklore. As these migrants entered into industrial relations of production and a concomitant working-class consciousness in a war-driven economy, African American writers, intellectuals, and workers were faced with the question of the degree to which this folk "past" was usable in the present. In the work of Ellison, Himes and Petry, the figure of the black folk in the urban-industrial environment, as it e/merged with the working class, became the embodied site for an examination of the massive cultural and political shifts engendered by World War II. In addition, each of these writers employed black folklore as a strategy in the struggle for African American self-determination within the United States during the war.

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