Stay Black and Die: On Melancholy and Genius

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This dissertation draws on Sigmund Freud’s essay “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917) to track melancholy and genius in black letters, culture, and history from the nineteenth century to the contemporary moment; it contends that melancholy is a catalyst for genius, and that genius is a signifier of the maternal.

Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Sigmund Freud prefigures an array of discourses in black studies. One mode of interrogation occurs with relation to his 1917 essay “Mourning and Melancholia”. Some African American literature, such as Richard Wright’s Black Boy, invokes this work indirectly, just as theoretical texts, like Joseph Winters’s Hope Draped in Black: Race, Melancholy, and the Agony of Progress, have direct engagement. Nevertheless, Freud’s attendance to mourning and melancholia is pertinent. He surmises that when the love object dies, mourning does the reparative work of suturing the ego back together after its splitting and impoverishment; melancholia, by contrast, is the “pathological disposition” which occasions such disrepair and instantiates itself through the psychic loss of the love object. In turn, melancholy carries the possibility of devolving into mania such that the one experiencing the psychic loss desires to inflict harm on, while simultaneously becoming, the love object; theorists generally assign this category to the mother. Furthermore, I assert that Freud’s diagnosis of mania reifies long-held and reductive designations when applied to blackness and maternity. My intervention stages a correlation and counterpoint to the above theorizations.

Through dissertation chapters in which an overarching thematic juxtaposes itself with each subject of inquiry, I contend that instead of melancholy catalyzing mania—a rendering of the “pathological” for the people in which the dissertation has its investments—, the affect fosters performances of excellence, given the shorthand “genius”. As a form of expression and interpretation in black thought writ large, genius emerges as a response to and in excess of one’s melancholy. This productivity concretizes that genius, not mania, is an affective vestige that is at once reducible and irreducible to the mother; and allows me to journey on a search for her, in myriad iterations, to discover a subject found as opposed to an object lost






Durham, I. Augustus (2018). Stay Black and Die: On Melancholy and Genius. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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