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Published October 21, 2019 | Version v1
Journal article Open

A "Savage Mode": The Transmedial Narratology of African American Protest


  • 1. University of Kansas (US)


This article explores narrative in African American protest art by examining Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son, alongside 21 Savage (Shayaa Abraham-Joseph) and Metro Boomin’s 2016 rap album Savage Mode. I open with a discussion of Native Son as a project of protest and with James Baldwin’s criticism of the novel, and of protest fiction at large. Centring Baldwin’s critique, this article explores the violence and horror of the narrative worlds of Wright’s Bigger Thomas and Abraham-Joseph’s 21 Savage, in an effort to discover if these works are capable of complicating Baldwin’s claims and expanding notions of what protest is and how it operates.
By applying Marie-Laure Ryan’s concept of storyworlds, and the attendant “principle of minimal departure,” the article lays out a narratology of protest. The social protest of these works, I find, is rendered uniquely efficacious by the violence that takes place within their storyworlds, violence that operates as a visceral, unignorable force urging real-world change. Because of its impact on the reader or listener, violence and discomfort within these narratives directs that user toward extra-narrative action. In building on the transmedial approach that Ryan encourages, and examining Savage Mode as a contemporary work of protest that shares a narrative technique with Native Son, the article also discusses some recent engagements with rap music in traditional scholarship and popular writing.
Throughout, I put forth the argument that both Savage Mode and Native Son function as powerful works of protest against real-world conditions, protests that operate via narratives that empathically involve their users in violent storyworlds. Abraham-Joseph’s protest, then, furthers Wright’s, as both are works that operate in a “savage” narratological “mode”—one of intense violence and discomfort which, read as protest, has the capacity to prompt an activist response in the user.


A “Savage Mode” - The Transmedial Narratology of African American Protest.pdf