Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Uncanny Bridges the Gap between Renaissance and African American Literature

By Briana Whiteside 

As I am wrapping up a class on 17th century Renaissance literature, I noticed that the uncanny acts a bridge to connect women in Renaissance and African American literature, more specifically, women in Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s The Roaring Girl and Toni Morrison’s Sula. I use the uncanny to describe a strange or even supernatural trait or set of traits that distinguishes a figure in a particular environment. The term uncanny can also refer to defiance and strength in characters who refuse to conform to norms.

In Middleton and Dekker’s The Roaring Girl, we are presented with a “cross-dressing,” witty, independent woman Moll Cutpurse. She refuses to conform to gender norms for women—such as ideas concerning sexuality and marriage—which creates anxiety for other characters in the play. Likewise, Morrison’s Sula focuses on protagonist Sula Peace, a promiscuous, outspoken, disorderly woman who also disrupts normalcy in The Bottom—the hilly community where she lives. 

I borrow from Ernst Jentsch’s explanation of the uncanny where he posits, “it is only when one deliberately removes such a problem from the usual way of looking at [it]—for the activity of understanding is accustomed to remain insensitive to such enigmas, as a consequence of power of the habitual—that particular feeling of uncertainty quiet often presents itself.” If we take into consideration the fears of other community members in both The Roaring Girl and Sula, we will be able to understand how the presence of these independent enigmatic characters compel us to confront the fears surrounding unusual women in society.

Briana Whiteside is a graduate student in English at SIUE and a contributing writer for the Black Studies Program.   

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