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Ilha Do Desterro


After historicizing the politics of racial representation in the slave narrative, this article considers how race, gender, and class intersect historically in the autobiographical production of Black men in the United States. At the dawn of the Jim Crow era, Black autobiography conformed to a cultural politics of racial synecdoche, which avowed that racial progress depended on the respectability of esteemed individuals. Dominated by aspirational figures who presented themselves as racial emblems, Black autobiography became closely aligned with the imperatives of Black middle-class formation, actuating a discrete form of racial publicity that erected disciplinary boundaries around Black self-presentation and silenced disreputable figures. With the emergence of criminal and sexual self-reference, whether subtle or striking, in the narratives of Black men, autobiographers like boxer Jack Johnson, scholar J. Saunders Redding, and writer Claude Brown, disrupted the class-bound constraints that had determined Black autobiographical production, staging an internecine class struggle over the terms of racial representation—that is, between contending discourses of racial respectability and racial authenticity.

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