Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


College of Humanities and Social Sciences



Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair

Laura Nicosia

Committee Member

Jeffrey Gonzalez

Committee Member

Adam Rzepka


Lewis Nordan’s Music of the Swamp has not been fully explored with an emphasis on Nordan’s personal history in relation to racism in the South. In Nordan’s autobiography, Boy With the Loaded Gun (2000), Nordan describes growing up in Itta Benna, Mississippi — just one town over from where Emmett Till was murdered in 1955 (Nordan 80). I argue Nordan’s depiction of death in the Music of the Swamp can be read as the early stages of him grappling with Till’s death through writing, along with the broader historical context of Southern racism. Nordan’s ambivalent relationship to this history informs how white identity is constructed in relation to death, as Nordan’s protagonist, Sugar Mecklin, grapples with how his white identity is implicated by this racist history. Sugar's varying reactions to death indicate a destabilizing of a once unchallenged white identity.

I draw on Toni Morrison’s study of American Africanism in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992) to inform my investigation of Nordan’s creative decisions in the novel. I also use James Baldwin’s commentary on white identity in The Fire Next Time (1962) to explore Sugar’s budding awareness of his and his family’s mortality and how white identity relies on weaponizing the notion of death as a threat to Black people’s mortality. In weaponizing death in such a way, white people avoid facing the universality of mortality for themselves.

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