Skip to Content

The Child, the Parent: Ethics, Politics, Race

«Back To Seminars

Organizer: Cynthia Quarrie

Co-Organizer: Naomi Morgenstern

Contact the Seminar Organizers

The child is a figure onto whom mythic pasts and anxious futures are regularly projected, and as such often bears much mystifying affective weight. Sentimentalized and innocent, but also demonic and unruly, the child can embody nostalgia for simpler times and myths of national origin; violent histories and the return of repressed traumas; and even idealized or precarious futures, worth struggling for or against on its behalf. As a number of recent historiographies of the child have shown, the notion of the innocence of the child was in fact constructed as an essential quality of white children over the course of the colonial period. This process of naturalization was enabled by the mapping of original sin, barbarism, and primitivism onto the racialised colonial child, and indeed onto the infantilized colonial subject who could never accede to full adulthood. The white child in its innocent state of nature has long been used as a screen onto which mythic origins are projected, but these myths have always been under threat by the same colonial enterprise that insured its status in the first place. The child has thus featured pivotally not only in the large-scale racial projects of colonialism and slavery, but also in abolition, in the enfranchisement of African-Americans, in civil rights and Black Lives Matter movements, and in post-colonial literature more broadly.
This panel will explore contemporary readings of the child and its corollary, the parent. Historically associated with the paternalism of colonialism and the state, mothers and fathers also find themselves at the nexus of conflicting imperatives regarding the child. Indeed, contemporary figurations of the child make it available to such a broad range of constituencies and to such divergent uses, that it becomes a dense locus for anxieties around social reproduction and individual responsibility. Consider, for example, the racial politics and conflicting ethical imperatives faced by parents in such novels as Morrison’s Beloved, Phillips’ The Lost Child, Oyeyemi’s Boy Snow Bird, Zadie Smith’s NW, Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, and even in non-fiction works like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.
While this panel is primarily focused on the child/the parent and race, we also welcome papers that explore:

representations of parenthood in contemporary narratives across media and cultures
gender / sexuality AND motherhood / fatherhood / queer parenting / queer children
motherhood / fatherhood / the child and disability studies
alternate readings of the child figure / the parent in historical texts

Co-Chairs: Cynthia Quarrie (Concordia), Naomi Morgenstern (Toronto), and Jean Wyatt (Occidental College)

«Back To Seminars