Smooth Operating and Other Social Acts

By Roland Leander Williams

Subjects: African American Studies, Literary Criticism, Multiethnic Literature, Gender Studies, American History
Series: SUNY series in Multiethnic Literatures
Hardcover : 9781438489476, 190 pages, July 2022
Paperback : 9781438489469, 190 pages, January 2023

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Table of contents


Prologue: On the Sly

Birth of Cool

Standards and Practices

Two of Kind

Game of Charades

Old Black Magic

Lost in Translation

Learning the Ropes

Blind Man's Bluff

Dress for Success

Postscript: On One's Game

Works Cited


An engaging homage to African American resilience and resourcefulness in US literature and culture.


Through a cultural study of writings about slavery in the United States, Smooth Operating and Other Social Acts uncovers a mode of behavior adopted by African Americans for relief from the brutality of black bondage. Roland Leander Williams grants that African Americans have been beaten, but he guarantees that they have not been broken. While he acknowledges that they have been demeaned, he assures that they have not been diminished. Williams confesses that African Americans have been done harm, but he confirms that they have not become disheartened. Close readings of classic slave narratives, along with some neo-slave narratives—including The Conjure Woman (1899), Kindred (1979), Dessa Rose (1986), and The Good Lord Bird (2013)—furnish proof that African Americans have preserved their dignity and elevated their status through ingenious applications of improvisation. Smooth Operating and Other Social Acts establishes as well that a dim view of African Americans, propagated by black bondage, bears a resemblance to sexual discrimination, which prompts female targets of its gaze to practice dissembling.

Roland Leander Williams is Chair and Professor of English at Temple University. He is the author of Black Male Frames: African Americans in a Century of Hollywood Cinema, 1903–2003 and African American Autobiography and the Quest for Freedom.