Apart and a Part: Dissonance, Double Consciousness, and the Politics of Black Identity in African American Literature, 1946-1964

  • David Jones

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis examines the politics of black identity in African American literature during what has come to be known as the 'age of three worlds'. Across four chapters, I analyse texts by Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Lorraine Hansberry, exploring the way in which their writing plays out within and against the geopolitical exigencies of the Cold War and contemporaneous discourses of Civil Rights and black (inter)nationalism. In doing so, I explore the contrasting ways in which each of them displaces the binary logic that is typically seen as defining the 1950s, as a means of reconstituting both American and African American identity. Rejecting either/or identities, they all decentre prevailing notions of national and cultural identity by juxtaposing them with alternative spaces and temporalities, the result of which is a dual perspective that is simultaneously local and transnational. By extricating themselves, whether physically or intellectually, from a monolithic discursive framework, Ellison, Wright, Baldwin, and Hansberry recast the idea of double consciousness famously articulated by W. E. B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Instead of being a self-negating non-identity that serves as the psychological corollary to African Americans' marginalised status, 'two-ness' is transmuted into a privileged vantage point that allows them to both intervene on the world historical stage as empowered modern subjects and renegotiate their relationship with the United States. What this two-ness amounts to, I argue, is a kind of dissonance. 'Dissonance', Duke Ellington claimed in 1941, names black people's 'way of life in America. We are something apart, yet an integral part'. The principle of introducing a 'wrong' note into a piece of music in order to generate new modalities of expression found in jazz is transposed into a social and literary context by the writers examined in this thesis. Each of them embodies and mobilises the socially grounded sense of being apart and a part alluded to by Ellington as a means of defamilarising normative notions of race, gender, and sexuality as they pertain to American-ness. In their place, they posit alternative forms of knowledge and politicised identity that reconstitute what it means to be both black and American in the middle of the twentieth century.
Date of Award31 Dec 2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorDouglas Field (Supervisor) & Monica Pearl (Supervisor)


  • Cold War
  • Civil Rights
  • decolonisation
  • transnationalism
  • dissonance
  • Ralph Ellison
  • Lorraine Hansberry
  • James Baldwin
  • Richard Wright
  • double consciousness
  • African American

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