MHC's Young to Discuss Black Frankenstein

Posted: October 8, 2008

For all the scholarship devoted to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, there has been surprisingly little attention paid to its role in American culture, and virtually none to its racial resonances in the United States.

That is, until professor of English and gender studies Elizabeth Young tackled both subjects in her latest book, Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor(New York University Press, 2008). She will read from the book at the Odyssey Bookshop Wednesday, October 29, at 7 pm.

In Black FrankensteinYoung identifies and interprets the figure of a black American Frankenstein monster as it appears with unexpected frequency throughout nineteenth- and twentieth-century in American fiction, film, essays, oratory, painting, and other media, and in works by both whites and African Americans.

"I have always enjoyed the Frankenstein story as a part of popular culture, but in this project, I got interested in the ways the monster has been used more seriously, as a political metaphor in American culture," said Young, who noticed how often the monster was mentioned in accounts of black-white race relations in U.S. culture.

"I found the image of a black Frankenstein monster was used in America to attack slave revolt as far back as the Nat Turner rebellion in 1831, by white defenders of slavery," she said. "It has also been used, more sympathetically, by many black writers and activists--from novelist and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar at the turn of the twentieth century to comedian Dick Gregory in the 1960s and 1970s--to condemn white 'creators' of the conditions for black violence."

According to Young, black Frankenstein stories achieve several purposes: they humanize the slave; they explain, if not justify, black violence; they condemn the slaveowner; and they expose the instability of white power. The black Frankenstein monster has served as a powerful metaphor for reinforcing racial hierarchy--and as an even more powerful metaphor for shaping antiracist critique. While illuminating the power of parody and reappropriation, Black Frankensteintells the story of a metaphor that continues to matter to literature, culture, aesthetics, and politics.

In her book, Young traces the story of the political metaphor, and she gives some surprising examples.

"I interpret the film Bride of Frankenstein as an allegory of race relations--and some material that seldom gets studied in an academic context, such as the 'blaxploitation' film Blackenstein," she said. "I also analyze the whole idea of a political metaphor; the Frankenstein story, which reanimates dead body parts to life, is like a 'dead metaphor' brought back to life.

"I tried to stitch as many different examples, media, and interpretive approaches together as possible--as the Frankenstein monster himself is an amalgam of different parts," she added. "The project was great fun, but I also hope I've identified a serious element of American culture. Metaphors matter to how we understand the world, and I think the black Frankenstein metaphor has been very important in helping to shape understandings of race, America, and identity itself."

In his review of Young's latest work, Eric J. Sundquist, author of Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America, said, "This excellent and provocative book offers a compelling lesson in the political and cultural uses of a metaphor organized by design, as well as unconsciously, into a racial paradigm."

Young is also the author of Disarming the Nation: Women's Writing and the American Civil War (University of Chicago Press, 1999), which examines works ranging from the novels Little Women and Gone with the Wind, to African American women's memoirs of the war, to narratives of women who cross-dressed as male soldiers. Disarming the Nation was named an Outstanding Academic Title by the journal Choice, and Young was honored with Mount Holyoke's Meribeth E. Cameron Prize for Faculty Scholarship. In addition, she is the coauthor, with associate professor of art Anthony W. Lee, of On Alexander Gardner's "Photographic Sketch Book" of the Civil War(University of California Press, 2007), a study of the relation between images and words in one of the most famous volumes of Civil War photographs.

Young teaches courses on women writers, feminist theory, American literature, and film.

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