Sites Unseen: Architecture, Race, and American Literature

Sites Unseen: Architecture, Race, and American Literature

Sites Unseen: Architecture, Race, and American Literature

Sites Unseen: Architecture, Race, and American Literature

Excerpt

Architecture is fictional at a fundamental level. Yet its fictions
are not just make-believe worlds, but rather the making of
worlds, constitutive of our social being.

—K. Michael Hays, Catherine Ingraham, and
Alicia Kennedy, “On the House” (1994)

The idea for this book emerged from a deceptively simple question: Why are there so many porches in the conjure tales of Charles Chesnutt? Although Chesnutt’s conjure stories center on often-fantastic transformations within a reimagined slave South, the contemporary frame settings of his late nineteenth-century tales can seem repetitious at best, almost always placing the same characters on the same porch of the same post-Reconstruction North Carolina mansion. Was this repetition a sign of a lack of narrative imagination? Or was Chesnutt’s insistent return to the plantation porch instead a canny exploration of a powerfully resonant physical site and social space? And what did it mean in particular for an African American author writing at the so-called nadir of American race relations—and the peak of the Colonial Revival—to probe the socio-spatial legacy of the architecture of slavery? Why those porches, in this way, at that moment?

My pursuit of answers to these questions took me deep into Chesnutt’s work and the state of late nineteenth-century American architecture before eventually leading to the chapters that make up Sites Unseen, a study of race, American literature, and the built environment. I soon found there were many sites like Chesnutt’s porch in American writing: architectural representations, including but not limited to the built environment of slavery, that engage America’s racial and spatial history in compelling ways, sites that had nonetheless largely been overlooked or ignored by scholars otherwise . . .

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