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Black Aesthetics and the Interior Life

Christopher Freeburg

BUY Paper · 172 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813940328 · $24.50 · Sep 2017
BUY Cloth · 172 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813940311 · $65.00 · Sep 2017
BUY Ebook · 172 pp. · ISBN 9780813940335 · $24.50 · Sep 2017

Christopher Freeburg’s  Black Aesthetics and the Interior Life offers a crucial new reading of a neglected aspect of African American literature and art across the long twentieth century. Rejecting the idea that the most dehumanizing of black experiences, such as lynching or other racial violence, have completely robbed victims of their personhood, Freeburg rethinks what it means to be a person in the works of black artists. This book advances the idea that individual persons always retain the ability to withhold, express, or change their ideas, and this concept has profound implications for long-held assumptions about the relationship between black interior life and black collective political interests.

Examining an array of seminal black texts—from Ida B. Wells’s antilynching pamphlets to works by Richard Wright, Nina Simone, and Toni Morrison—Freeburg demonstrates that the personhood represented by these writers unsettles rather than automatically strengthens black subjects’ relationships to political movements such as racial uplift, civil rights, and black nationalism. He shows how black artists illuminate the challenges of racial collectivity while stressing the vital stakes of individual personhood. In his challenge to current African Americanist criticism, Freeburg makes a striking contribution to our understanding of African American literature and culture.


Black Aesthetics and the Interior Life is a transformative work. With grace and a confident pen, Freeburg revisits the boundary between legal personhood and civil death by providing refreshed, brilliant and compelling readings of Black American letters, philosophy, and art. He unveils a long tradition of Black thinkers who articulated sophisticated ideas about being and self, ideas that were not limited to the terms of political recognition but also not evasive of them. This tradition, which Freeburg reveals, merits a central place in the study of African American and American literature culture and philosophy. Pushing beyond scholarly conventions, while respecting their merits, Freeburg fills in critical gaps in our understanding of African American literature and political philosophy. As such, I anticipate this book will become a classic of African American Studies.

Imani Perry, Hughes-Rogers professor of African American Studies at Princeton University

Black Aesthetics and the Interior Life is a masterful treatise on Black literature and Black being. Christopher Freeburg is elegant and forceful in his readings of the personal form in writings from Reconstruction to the post-civil rights era. With the broad perception of a cultural critic and the analytical precision of a philosopher, he assembles to a dazzling array of texts from literature and popular culture to bring the most careful attention to those flights of fancy, those movements of the interior, those unplanned and unplannable presents that characterize Black being loosened from the grip of collective racial politics. This is a book that provokes, devastates, and, in the end, captivates.

Erica R. Edwards, Associate Professor of English, Rutgers University

Freeburg has written a brilliant, beautiful tour de force in which he reimagines the conventions of both aesthetic tradition and social history with his innovative readings of a "black personal form"—a form that, he cogently argues, emerges in precisely those sites that would seem to extinguish black subjecthood.

Michele Elam, Professor of English and African American Studies, Director of the Graduate Interdisciplinary Program in Modern Thought & Literature, Stanford University

Sure to inspire reflection and stir up controversy, Christopher Freeburg’s Black Aesthetics and the Interior Life looks at intensely personal scenes of black writing in order to jumpstart a fresh conversation about civil rights, freedom, and personhood.  How do we recuperate the human from an unending history of dehumanization? How might violence, despair, and desolation express an inextinguishable sense of self?  By asking these difficult questions of Charles Chesnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison among other authors and artists, Freeburg also insists that we ask such profound questions of ourselves.  

Russ Castronovo, Chair of the Department of English at University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the author of Propaganda 1776 and Beautiful Democracy

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