Date of Award

Spring 5-10-2013

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Elizabeth J. West

Second Advisor

Carol P. Marsh-Lockett

Third Advisor

Nancy D. Chase


This dissertation examines the legacy of secrecy, silences, and the unspoken in twentieth century African American literary texts. Using a range of texts representing various eras within the genre of African American literature, this dissertation contends that secrecy is a trope and may be attributed to inherited, maintained traditional practices from West and West Central Africa. Having read a number of African American texts and connecting my personal experiences with these works, I noticed a pattern of withheld discourse throughout.

Most notably, Leslie Lewis’s Telling Narratives posits a reason for this trope by examining earlier narratives, specifically nineteenth-century African American texts. She argues the master/slave relationship as the prevailing reason for the secretive motif. Yet, traditional and cultural practices noted in early African publications demonstrate that Africans were keeping secrets prior to their diasporic scatterings. By examining early West African-derived works, as well as nineteenth-century African American texts, I ground my position that secrecy as we see it evolves from or relates to early signifying and language manipulations, particular to African-derived people. Thus, the early works connect sustained homeland ties to the literature that follows, providing an explanation for the secrecy reflected in African American literature.

This study highlights three types of secrets: identity, family, and sexual, all of which are interrelated and, out of one, the other type may result. The texts that best demonstrate these silences are James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Nella Larsen’s Passing; James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple; and Gayl Jones’s Corregidora and Lalita Tademy’s Cane River. Each text group corresponds with a secret type.

Overall, this dissertation challenges the notion that secrecy as a trope in African American literature limits itself to the master/slave relationship in the United States. The previously mentioned texts highlight a direct link to West and West Central African traditions maintained after the Middle Passage. Hence, these preserved homeland customs, including secrecy, are reflected in twentieth-century African American literature.