Designing Cities & Men: Post-WWII Urban Renewal, Black Masculinity, and African American Aesthetics
Mensah, Lucy Kwabah
This dissertation examines the relationship between post-WWII urban renewal programs in the United States and aesthetic representations of black masculinity in 20th century African American literature. I argue that urban renewal-related processes such as evictions, slum clearance and redlining influenced the tropes and metaphors African American male writers and artists used to represent the existential dilemmas of dispossession African American men encountered in revitalized cities. I focus on New York City, Chicago, and Pittsburgh as three exemplary cities whose dismantled black belts offered black writers and artists generative material to think about the place of African American men in discussions about spatial autonomy, the relationship between individual and community, the process of identity formation, and, importantly, the potentially crippling lapse between African American men’s pursuit of idealized notions of American masculinity and the reality of their lived experiences as spatially dispossessed. Using a combination of historical contextualization, literary close reading, and visual analysis, I examine the works of figures such as Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Frank Marshall Davis, Romare Bearden, Gordon Parks, and Charles “Teenie” Harris. Through this type of analytic approach, I bring attention to the racialized, gendered and sexualized linguistic and visual languages black male artists used to describe the renewed post-WWII American city, notably its complicity as an architecture that is highly suspicious of black men’s presence.