Rachel Watson, “Evidence and Racial Discourse in Segregation-Era Literature” | National Humanities Center


Rachel Watson, “Evidence and Racial Discourse in Segregation-Era Literature”

June 1, 2021

When we read most novels, we assume that characters are the most important components of a story. However, in noteworthy American literature of the segregation era, it is often forms of evidence that structure novelistic worlds, making us recognize and question the ways that details of ordinary life can take on particular significance.

In this podcast episode, Rachel Watson, assistant professor of American literature at Howard University, considers how the treatment of evidence in literature can help us to illuminate the simultaneous development of discourses around race, criminology, and crime science. She suggests that at its best, the crime genre can challenge readers by encouraging them both to question the world around them and to suspend widely held assumptions about identity and typology.

Race; American Literature; Crime; Genre; Evidence
Rachel Watson, Howard University
Rachel Watson is assistant professor of American literature at Howard University. She earned her BA from Sarah Lawrence College, and her PhD in English from the University of Chicago. Her work focuses on American and African American literature since the late-nineteenth century, with a particular interest in representations of race, law, and criminal procedure. Before and after graduate school, Rachel worked as a paralegal at civil rights law firms in Washington, DC and Chicago that specialized, respectively, in matters of employment discrimination and police misconduct. Rachel is currently working on a book that considers literature of the segregation era in light of contemporaneous police procedure and matters of Constitutional law, particularly the protections afforded by the fourth and fifth Amendments. This project shows how the criminal, and the forensics surrounding its capture, emerged in both law and literature as a figure suited to dramatize the paradoxes of racial identity and its enforcement by police power.