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Title page for ETD etd-07182017-133714

Type of Document Dissertation
Author Johnson, Shelby Lynn
URN etd-07182017-133714
Title A Piece of Earth: Political Theologies of Finitude and Futurity in African American and Indigenous Literature, 1770-1840
Degree PhD
Department English
Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title
Jonathan Lamb Committee Co-Chair
Scott Juengel Committee Co-Chair
Hortense J. Spillers Committee Member
Mark Schoenfield Committee Member
Misty G. Anderson Committee Member
  • environmental studies
  • religion
  • spirituality
  • political theology
  • Native American literature
  • African American literature
Date of Defense 2017-05-04
Availability restricted
“Never give up your lands you now possess, for it is your right by God and nature, for the ‘earth was given to the children of men.’” Quoting Psalm 115-16, the Jamaican preacher Robert Wedderburn announces a political order divested of individual forms of ownership. Instead, a “right” to land ultimately derives from God as a divine gift shared equally by all. He re-imagines what it might mean to linger with the origins of a political order as a scene of gift-giving.

Throughout “A Piece of Earth: Political Theologies of Finitude and Futurity in African American and Indigenous Literature, 1770-1840,” I consider how eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Anglophone speakers and writers of color repeatedly draw from this scriptural tenet, and from a broader spiritually inflected imaginary of a finite earth, to express alternative fictions of political belonging and collectivity.

These fictions inspired speakers and writers of color to inhabit what I call “earthly repertoires,” or performance practices rendered in fictional archives that recursively re-embody – and, in an important sense, ground – attachments to the earth extemporized under the shadow of precarious racial displacements. Defined by contingency and finitude, earthly repertoires were assembled to contest systems of labor, legal arrangements of ownership and possession, and institutions of spiritual authority that managed non-white bodies throughout the colonial Atlantic world. In addressing the sometimes conflicted and often heterodox earthly repertoires voiced by speakers and writers of color, I draw my archive from an array of texts written or published between Samson Occom’s early journals and letters in the 1760s to William Apess’s life writing and political pamphlets in the 1830s. Composed in a period bookended by the extraordinary political upheavals and social dislocations of the American Revolution and Indian Removal, these narratives entrench the brutal histories of settler colonial violence within performance registers recalling the earth as a divine gift.

In the performance practices I explore, however, it is the verse’s very emphasis on patrilineal continuity and inheritance that often fractures its pronouncement of common possession of the earth. As often as “the earth was given to the children of men” was invoked on behalf of a politics collectivity, it was also summoned to encompass a work of mourning responsive to quotidian realities where African and indigenous children, and their extended kinship lines, were already lost. In response, many of the narratives I consider depict non-patrilineal kinship relations forged out of experiences of settler colonial sexual violences and alienation from family. Such relations queer both lateral and generational bonds, offering configurations of kinship in texts that radically contest settler colonial sexual and familial hierarchies. On a pragmatic level, many of the repertoires drawn from reiterations of “the earth was given to the children of men” often remain preoccupied by everyday dilemmas posed by burial for persons alienated from earthly kin, histories, and territories. In doing so, their earthly repertoires envision forms of fugitive belonging that contest the territorial displacements, sexual violations and kinship alienations, and spiritual disruptions enacted throughout the Atlantic world. They announce that subjects formed by a precarious itinerancy still require a piece of the earth.

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