“Take the Dummy with You”: Race, Disability, and the Jim Crow South in Delores Phillips’s The Darkest Child

Saturday, January 4, 2020: 1:30 PM
Murray Hill West (New York Hilton)
Delia Steverson, University of Florida
In this presentation, I uncover how Delores Phillips, as a black southern writer constructs disability in “The South”—a place that has been considered in the cultural imaginary as backwards and disposable. Born in 1950 in Centersville, Georgia, Delores Phillips wrote The Darkest Child (2004) while working as a nurse in the Northcoast Behavioral Healthcare System in Cleveland, Ohio. The Darkest Child follows mother Rozelle Quinn and her ten children as they try to survive and escape racism, lynchings, and poverty in Jim Crow Georgia during the 1950s. The intersections between race and disability are most illuminated through the conception of Martha Jean, one of the ten children, who is deaf and mute, and called a “dummy”—“a defective replica of [her] mother” (Phillips 9). By situating Martha Jean in both a literary and historical context of race, disability, and gender in the Jim Crow south, I argue that Delores Phillips imagines a nuanced notion of race and disability in African American literature. Scholars Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell coined the term “Narrative Prosthesis” to name the myriad ways in which disability has been constructed in literature, including as a metaphor for individual or societal collapse or as a foil for the main character, who appears as social deviant. Snyder and Mitchell maintain that a textual prosthesis seeks to erase disability in order to move the narrative forward. Yet, as I argue, Phillips’s text does not erase Martha Jean’s disability, and although her abusive mother considers her “the most useless of all her children,” I contend that Martha Jean’s presence is not indicative of narrative prosthesis; rather, Martha Jean constitutes a character of complex embodiment who complicates the preconceived notions of people with disabilities as “burdens” on society.
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