Andreá Williams talks ‘Dividing Lines’ on New Books in African American Studies

by Phillip Witteveen on May 17, 2013

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Dividing Lines: Class Anxiety and Postbellum Black FictionAuthor Andreá Williams joined host Vershawn Young to talk about her new book Dividing Lines: Class Anxiety and Postbellum Black Fiction on the New Books Network’s New Books in African American Studies. The book examines the beginnings of class anxiety and intraracial class tensions in postbellum black communities as they manifest themselves in the literature of that time period. Williams incorporates the fiction of such authors as Sutton E. Griggs, Charles Chesnutt, and W.E.B. DuBois, as the first generations of freed men and women came to terms with their new social status.  Her perspective on this more complex culture was framed by the diversity at Spelman College, historically a school attended by black women.

Williams’ intraracial perspective is somewhat unique, as it takes into account the stratification within black sub-society at the time, where in addition to Jim Crow segregation, there was also a kind of inner segregation between different social classes of African Americans determined by wealth and skin color. Sutton E. Griggs’ first and most famous work, Imperium in Imperio, explores the idea of a separate black nation within the United States, and articulated a strong sentiment among its black readers. This idea of a state within a state—with its own social stratifications—is central to this idea of intraracial class anxiety in Dividing Lines.

Characters in this period’s fiction, such as in Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy, would have a kind of extended disagreement about terminology, as the author addressed how middle-class or lower-class people should be referred to.  “I’m not rich,” as character might say, or “I’m not poor.” These kinds of tangents would break entirely from the plot, which would reassert itself afterwards. Titular character Iola Leroy herself had a confused understanding of race for a different reason. As the mostly white daughter of plantation owner, she is taken care of and sent to boarding school—until the however small part of her black heritage comes to light and she becomes her father’s property. She has “blue-veins”—black, yet pale enough to show the color of her blood vessels. In relation to this, the work of Charles Chesnutt would often feature a trickster character, who would dress up and pretend to have more cultural capital than they should have been entitled to. “The body,” says Williams, “is an unreliable sign of class and race.”

You hear the full conversation here.


{ 1 comment }

A. Anderson May 23, 2013 at 1:38 pm

Can’t wait to get this! Chesnutt’s “Marrow of Tradition” is such a deep text regarding relationships within and across race. My thesis discussed Chesnutt and William Wells Brown’s roles in revolutionizing fiction by writing white characters. Check it out!

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