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Abstract

My dissertation project has as its focus the doubled problem of darkness: i.e., as the darkness of sin and the darkness of the skin. In it, I introduce a descriptive concept: the Dark Mask, inspired by my readings of Frantz Fanon (white masks), W. E. B. Du Bois (double consciousness), and Emilie Townes (fantastic hegemonic imagination), which intends to solve for the problem of the inescapability of material darkness and the ill treatment that attends it. The dissertation is an exploration over three centuries of the problem of a skin that functions, not only, as Fanon's titular phrase suggests, as a black skin one ironically seeks to cover, but also as a mask in its own right-a dark mask that can never be removed. Using the concept of the Dark Mask, I challenge the division between material darkness - e.g., the darkness embodied by black Americans - and conceptions of darkness, which, I argue, inform our treatment of those who provide material reference for its negative conceptions, i.e., darkness as bad, evil, wrong, terrifying, etc. In short, black lives do matter. And it is their mattering so deeply as black to the sustenance of our moral consciousness as a nation that prevents them from mattering as they ought to, as human lives of infinite value. In examining this moral commodification of blackness, I write about the ways that the Dark Mask works to create and sustain its valuable counterpart, the White Mask, which is perhaps the main aim (however subconscious) of the stereotyped identity demanded from darker-skinned Americans. In order to get a closer look at the trajectory of this association in America, I have chosen primary cultural artifacts from select moments in US history. I begin my exploration of the use of dark, darkness, and black in Mather's 17th century text The Wonders of the Invisible World, written at the height of the Salem witchcraft scare of 1692. My second chapter treats Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, with an emphasis on Stowe's use of the demonic child Topsy, and introduces the problems of a salvation that is dependent on the perceived cultural and physical trappings of whiteness. I am now working on my third and final body chapter, which considers the theological and social significance of lynching: ritualized violence and the dark scapegoat. My chosen texts for this section include Thomas Dixon's The Clansman and D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1911). The central aim of this section is to show the ways in which the ritual of lynching, and its representation are facilitated by and even demanded by our dark/black=demonic, light/white=angelic dichotomy. I believe that a focused exploration of the history of associations of darkness with sinfulness, wretchedness, and evil in America may produce one of the keys to the mysteries attending the unjust and vile treatment of darker-skinned peoples well beyond any fault of their own, and the abject fear and madness that often characterizes violent, abusive, and otherwise exploitative actions taken against those with dark skin-who, as a result, wear Dark Masks. Finally, I hope this line of inquiry might provide another approach to the puzzle of why adherence to the codes demanded by respectability politics has not and never will be enough to earn the safety and life chances of millions of human beings.

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