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COGNITION, CULTURAL MOMENTS, AND THE LITERARY MARCH TOWARD CIVIL RIGHTS Open Access

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This dissertation examines the way in which literary fiction may enable individuals to transcend tribe-centered biases by fostering empathetic understanding. It draws from a wealth of neuroscience research to explore how such fiction, through the creation of emotionally resonant characters, permits individuals to identify with others whose lives may be quite different from their own. At an abstract level, the dissertation offers a theory of cultural moments to explain fiction’s ability to ignite grass-roots movements pressing for critical social transformation. The dissertation then locates historically three culturally significant novels indicting racism in America and scrutinizes their social influence. The first chapter explores the science behind group formation and the problem of bigotry. It offers a theoretical explanation for the existence of a cognitive uncanny—a feeling of psychological discomfort that occurs when expectations about another’s behavior fail to match what is observed. This chapter argues that literary fiction helps readers bridge the cognitive uncanny by allowing them to connect emotionally with others’ minds, thereby laying a foundation for empathetic understanding. The second chapter examines Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s effect on the quest to abolish slavery and assesses the novel’s message to embrace blacks as equal human beings. The third chapter studies Native Son’s contribution to ending the pernicious “separate but equal” doctrine and discusses how that novel may have paved the way for the Supreme Court’s momentous decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Finally, the fourth chapter takes up the impact of To Kill a Mockingbird on the modern civil rights movement and investigates the novel’s undeniable influence on the pursuit of legal equality for African Americans.

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