Title

Representation and Signification: "The Street" and "Dutchman" As Revisions of Richard Wright's Portrayal of Black Identity and Experience In "Native Son"

Date of Award

2005

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

First Advisor

Thomas Richardson

Advisor Department

English

Abstract

In 1937 Richard Wright's "Blueprint for Negro Writing" appeared in New Challenge . "Blueprint" was Wright's effort to outline a literary theory for African American writers. However, his novel Native Son (1940), which established him as a major twentieth century writer, had even more of an impact on African American literature and the course it would take. An attempt to define the black identity and struggle with racism through the startling account of a young black man accused of raping and murdering a white woman, Native Son has generated many literary responses from other black authors in the form of revision. It is these literary responses or revisions of Wright's work by other black writers that I explore in Representation and Signification . Two African American fictional texts that I believe revise not only the general plot of Native Son , but its definition of the black experience and identity, are Ann Petry's The Street (1946) and Amid Baraka's (LeRoi Jones) Dutchman (1964). Other writers have referred to a literary relationship between Wright and Petry's work because Petry is considered a writer in Wright's school of the protest era. However, none have dealt this specifically with how Petry's plot in The Street revises Wright's plot in Native Son . The same could be said about the literary relationship between Wright and Baraka, and how Dutchman revises Native Son with detail. I read Native Son, The Street and Dutchman as links in a signifying chain that reaches all the way back to slave narratives written as early as 1770, demonstrating Wright's influence by themes and tropes that appear in these slave narratives. I also argue that Petry's and Baraka's works are cultural and identity revisions of Wright's Native Son because each text has had a significant effect on the manner in which social forms of the black race are depicted to succeeding generations. Respectively, Petry and Baraka revise and sometimes reverse the elements of Wright's novel to support their own agendas and concerns about African American literature and the portrayal of black identity and experience that they apparently feel Wright failed to address. Representation and Signification traces the intersection of concepts of black identity and experience of Wright's and Petry's literary period of the 1940s and Baraka's literary period of the 1960s. Specifically, I seek to do a textual comparison between Native Son and The Street , and between Native Son and Dutchman in which I question each author's motive for revision. I also explain the authors' different views of the black identity and experience and explore the reasons why they may have felt the need to revise Wright's work.