Academic journal article MELUS

Counter-Discourses on the Racialization of Theft and Ethics in Douglass's Narrative and Jacobs's Incidents

Academic journal article MELUS

Counter-Discourses on the Racialization of Theft and Ethics in Douglass's Narrative and Jacobs's Incidents

Article excerpt

That disposition to theft with which they have been branded, must be ascribed to their situation, and not to any depravity of the moral sense. The man, in whose favour no laws of property exist, probably feels himself less bound to respect those made in favour of others. When arguing for ourselves, we lay it down as a fundamental, that laws, to be just, must give a reciprocation of right: that, without this, they are mere arbitrary rules of conduct, founded in force, and not in conscience: and it is a problem which I give to the master to solve, whether the religious precepts against the violation of property were not framed for him as well as his slave? (Thomas Jefferson 11; my emphasis).

**********

The subject of racializing crime and criminalizing race has been treated at some length in the juridical enterprise of critical race theory. Cornel West has referred to critical race theory as "an intellectual movement that is both particular to our postmodern (and conservative) times and part of a long tradition of human resistance and liberation" (West xi). The common objective in this area of legal scholarship is to challenge the ways that racism is normalized. Scholars see their work as revealing and challenging the "ways in which race and racial power are constructed and represented in American legal culture, and more generally, in American society as a whole" (Crenshaw xiii). An underlying assumption in this process is that the law has not and does not operate outside of politics. It is not a "determinate, objective, bounded, neutral" enterprise. Rather it is bound up with politics, which is "open-ended, subjective, discretionary, and ideological" (xviii). In other words, the law is "an active instance of the very power politics it purports to avoid and stand above" (xxiv). Scholarship in this area assists in deconstructing myths about race and deviance, and it challenges the idea that deviance, immorality, and criminality are inherently connected to race as that term has been used to refer to a category for hierarchizing humans. (1) It facilitates a response to the question of how American legal and social practice contributed historically to the racialization of theft and unethical behavior, in general, and to the construction of the popular American image of the "thievin' negro," in particular.

For those of us concerned with African American literary history, this raises the question of how African American authors have engaged this particular problem. How do representative literary texts function in relationship to discourses that produced the problem? Scholars in the field of African American literature are well aware that the literature has often functioned counterdiscursively in relationship to American historical and literary narratives. In this context, "counter-discourse" suggests more than a response or reaction to the dominant discourse driving negative stereotypes; it involves a preemptive strike, an overt action that anticipates a continuing future struggle. (2) Just as African American women intellectuals labored in centuries past to counter the evolving stereotype of the sexually available and licentious black woman (see Carby), African American authors of both genders have used their writing to counteract the effects of, among other negative images, the stereotype of the black thief. Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (1845) and Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) provide two such early examples.

In Narrative and Incidents, the authors' positing of self as subject allows them to critique the social and cultural factors that contributed to the development of the stereotype of the black thief. The individual subject (Jacobs or Douglass) becomes a collective subject (black America) speaking on its own behalf, providing its own narrative of events. Both texts not only exhibit their authors' awareness of the developing stereotype, but they also call attention to the ways that legal and other discourses operated to shape the stereotype. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.