English, Department of


Black Rage in African American Literature before the Civil Rights Movement: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Charles Chesnutt, Nella Larsen, Richard Wright, and Ann Petry

Steven T. Moore, University of Nebraska - Lincoln

Document Type Article

A Dissertation Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska in Partial Fulfillment of Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Major: English; Under the Supervision of Professor Maureen Honey.
Lincoln, Nebraska; December, 2007
Copyright © 2007 Steven T. Moore


This dissertation traces the gender differences of black rage expressed in African American literature before the Civil Rights Movement. It begins with the captivating theme of white silence and black rage battling each other throughout the century of 1845–1946. After providing a scholarly overview of this theme in literature, I provide some personal reflections on black rage and African American literature during slavery and Jim Crow in Chapter One.

Chapter Two provides an excellent starting point for examining black rage with the two most famous nineteenth century slavery narratives. Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) exemplifies the angry black male as he demonstrates how racism drove him to physically lash out against his slave master. However, Harriet Ann Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) provides the opposite reaction; she buries her pain within. Chapter Three leaves the days of slavery and journeys into the post-Reconstruction era with Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900) and Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929). Their writings eerily mirror the experiences of Douglass and Jacobs, but there are notable differences. Biracial males battle with rage by passing for white men, whereas biracial females internalize their rage.

Finally, Chapter Four reveals a new perspective on black rage that was present in the inner cities of America during the 1930s and 1940s with Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) and Ann Petry’s The Street (1946). Black rage is much more violent when compared to the previous texts. Wright’s male protagonist is led to the death chair because of his violence, and Petry’s female protagonist experiences a murderous rage.

Some of the most important scholars and thinkers who frame my dissertation are Robert Stepto, William L. Andrews, Noam Chomsky, Jean Fagan Yellin, Barbara Christian, Julianne Malveaux, David L. Blackmore, Martha J. Cutter, Deborah E. McDowell, James Baldwin, bell hooks, and Cornel West.