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Signifying without Specifying

Racial Discourse in the Age of Obama
Stephanie Li (Author)
218 pages, 0, 6 x 9
Cloth, November 2011 $76.00   ADD TO CART
Paper, November 2011 $28.95   ADD TO CART
Web PDF, October 2011 $28.95   EBOOK VERSION AVAILABLE
epub, November 2011 $24.95   EBOOK VERSION AVAILABLE
Subject Area:
American Studies, Literary Studies, African American Studies


On the campaign trail, Barack Obama faced a difficult task—rallying African American voters while resisting his opponents’ attempts to frame him as “too black” to govern the nation as a whole. Obama’s solution was to employ what Toni Morrison calls “race-specific, race-free language,” avoiding open discussions of racial issues while using terms and references that carried a specific cultural resonance for African American voters.

Stephanie Li argues that American politicians and writers are using a new kind of language to speak about race. Challenging the notion that we have moved into a “post-racial” era, she suggests that we are in an uneasy moment where American public discourse demands that race be seen, but not heard. Analyzing contemporary political speech with nuanced readings of works by such authors as Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Colson Whitehead, Li investigates how Americans of color have negotiated these tensions, inventing new ways to signal racial affiliations without violating taboos against open discussions of race.


"Li's provocative and thoughtful close readings both compliment and contribute to one's understanding of how fiction depicts talking b(l)ack. Elegantly scripted and beautifully argued, this fresh effort illustrates the interplay between the fiction of race and racial fiction."
—Karla FC Holloway, James B. Duke Professor of English and Professor of Law, Duke University

Author / Editor Bio

STEPHANIE LI is an assistant professor of English at the University of Rochester. She is the author of Something Akin to Freedom: The Choice of Bondage in Narratives by African American Women and a short biography of Toni Morrison.

Table Of Contents


1. Violence and Toni Morrison's Racist House
2. Hiding the Invisble Hurt of Race
3. The Unspeakable Language of Race and Fantasy in the Stories of Jhumpa Lahiri
4. Performing Intimacy: "Race-Specific, Race-Free Language" in Political Discourse
Conclusion: The Demands of Precious



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