Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.)

Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Abraham Khan, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Chris McRae, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Lori Roscoe, Ph.D.


Frontier Myth, Freakery, Performance, Embodiment


In this thesis I argue that the early conceptualization of American identity was achieved through the dehumanization of blacks at slave auctions, and that the subjugation of this group informed more areas of the collective, normalized, American identity than just race. I contend that blacks were deprived of qualities that are considered inherently human (and American) and reduced to the facts of their bodies. To do this, I analyze newspaper advertisements for slave auctions, abolitionist editorials, and postings for runaway slaves. I also look at primary accounts of slave auctions that speak to the performative nature of the setting. I analyze the former set of texts to see how black bodies, in the context of their sale at auction, are discursively constructed in print media. In regard to the latter set of texts I discuss how slaves auctions mimicked theatrical settings, and how this staging and spectacularization of black bodies influenced the creation of a collective national identity. I argue that the emphasis on the slave’s body in newspapers and the spectacle of it on the auction block function to dehumanize blacks in such a significant manner that they become distinct from their free, white counterparts in ways that go beyond racial difference. This thesis expands on scholarship that considers the influence the institution of slavery had the normalizing of whiteness in America by positing that characteristics fundamental to American identity, such as individualism and creativity, were also established through the dehumanization of the blacks.

Included in

Communication Commons