Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor

Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor

Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor

Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor

Synopsis

For all the scholarship devoted to Mary Shelley's English novel Frankenstein, there has been surprisingly little attention paid to its role in American culture, and virtually none to its racial resonances in the United States. In Black Frankenstein, Elizabeth Young identifies and interprets the figure of a black American Frankenstein monster as it appears with surprising frequency throughout nineteenth- and twentieth-century U.S. culture, in fiction, film, essays, oratory, painting, and other media, and in works by both whites and African Americans.

Black Frankenstein stories, Young argues, effect four kinds of racial critique: they humanize the slave; they explain, if not justify, black violence; they condemn the slaveowner; and they expose the instability of white power. The black Frankenstein's monster has served as a powerful metaphor for reinforcing racial hierarchy--and as an even more powerful metaphor for shaping anti-racist critique. Illuminating the power of parody and reappropriation, Black Frankenstein tells the story of a metaphor that continues to matter to literature, culture, aesthetics, and politics.

Excerpt

You can teach an old metaphor new tricks. In the Frankenstein story, first introduced in the novel by Mary Shelley in 1818 and made famous on film by James Whale in 1931, a monster, assembled from corpses and reanimated, rebels violently against his creator. The Frankenstein story has a long history of being used as a political metaphor, and at the start of the twenty-first century, it continues to shape political debate. Consider, for example, critiques of U.S. foreign policy in the wake of 9/11. In “We Finally Got Our Frankenstein,” filmmaker Michael Moore compares Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to the Frankenstein monster: “We had a virtual love fest with this Frankenstein whom we (in part) created. And, just like the mythical Frankenstein, Saddam eventually spun out of control. He would no longer do what he was told by his master. Saddam had to be caught.” Moore considers Hussein one of many monsters created by the U.S. government, including Osama bin Laden—“Our other Frankenstein”—and a roster of right-wing dictators: “We liked playing Dr. Frankenstein. We created a lot of monsters—the Shah of Iran, Somoza of Nicaragua, Pinochet of Chile—and then we expressed ignorance or shock when they ran amok and massacred people.”

Moore uses the Frankenstein metaphor to condemn the U.S. government for “playing Dr. Frankenstein,” conducting a scientific experiment that is also a “love fest” gone wrong. Novelist Carlos Fuentes offers a similar cautionary tale but links the monster to a familial metaphor: “Saddam Hussein was Saddam Hussein because the United States gave him all possible support. The United States is extraordinarily gifted in creating monsters like Frankenstein. Then one fine day they discover that these Frankensteins are dreadful. However, for twenty years they were the spoilt children, their proteges, and the babies of the United States.” Journalist Maureen Dowd invokes the idea of religious overreaching when she condemns Vice President Dick Cheney “and his crazy-eyed Igors at the Pentagon [for] their hunger to remake the Middle East. It’s often seen in . . .

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