Michael McGee

The Practice of Freedom: Reconsidering Freedom in African American Literature

My dissertation is an interdisciplinary study of the meaning and experience of freedom in America as read through African American literature. The goal of the project is to grasp what Ralph Ellison describes as “…a certain degree of freedom that had always existed in my group’s state of unfreedom.” By analyzing the complexities in African Americans’ struggle for freedom and by exploring the possibilities within how African American writers and vernacular cultural practices imagine what it means to be free in America, this dissertation works to understand freedom as an experience that is made—constituted by practices—and not as an entity conferred. My dissertation focuses between 1863 and 1964, analyzing the rhetoric around freedom as found in key political and legal documents, first and second hand accounts of how African Americans describe their experience of freedom, and essays written by some of the more prominent writers in the African American literary tradition. I am seeking support from the Center for Race and Gender for archival research, collecting oral histories and interviews of formers slaves and race leaders during this time period describing the gap between the freedom they imagined and experienced, how the racialized and gendered values of American society impacted the meaning of freedom, and how they adjusted in their vernacular practices to make their own freedom.