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About This Page

This is the page to consult before you do the readings for a given class period, while you're thinking about what you've read, when you're generating ideas for your film analyses or essays, or whenever you want to find out more about the field of African American Studies. In it, I'm including ideas about how the assigned readings fit together or conflict with each other, gestures toward providing historical and social context, suggestions for further reading on various topics, and useful links that relate to each week's materials. Feel free to suggest things to add to this page--and thanks in advance for your suggestions.

Week 1: Overview

This week, we'll mostly be getting to know each other--but I also want us to consider the big questions that we often forget to ask at the beginning of a course, not only about requirements and content, but also about purposes, goals, and structure: why a course in "African American" literature and culture? what for? why am I teaching/taking it? what are my own expectations, hopes, worries, interests? how do my answers to these questions relate to everyone else's?

Some macro questions that we will keep returning to over the course of the semester include: what makes a literary tradition? what makes a culture? how are we to define an African American literary tradition? African American culture? what are the relations in a given era among African American literary culture, African American popular culture, the larger U.S. literary culture, the larger U.S. popular culture, and literary and popular cultures in the new world and across the diaspora?

These kinds of questions should always be in the background while we examine various African American literary responses to the four places that structure the course--country, city, nation, world--and we will at times bring them into the foreground. But our primary interest will be in examining as attentively and precisely as possible how and to what ends various writers and filmmakers are responding to social conditions, historical legacies, images of, and narratives about a given place, and how their responses and representations change over time.

Suggestions for further exploration:

Week 2: Vernacular

This week should be a good introduction to the main features of the course--among them, a focus on readings by multiple authors around a particular topic each week. The plan for this week is that on Tuesday we'll consider some of the larger theoretical issues around what the Norton editors call "the vernacular tradition"--largely by focusing on the essays by Gates and McKay, O'Meally, Johnson, and Hurston. Then, on Thursday, we'll continue in this direction by listening to a lecture by pedagogy theorist Pat Courts on current sociolinguistic research into the black vernacular and some of its political implications, and afterwards open up a discussion that relates these theoretical perspectives with attempts by artists from both the nineteenth (Dunbar, Chesnutt) and twentieth centuries (Brown, Hughes, Dash) to represent the black vernacular in text and on film. (Speaking of the film, I highly recommend checking out the web sites devoted to Daughters of the Dust before viewing the film on Wednesday night; for links, click here.) I include the "folk tales" because so many of the writers we'll be reading this semester are re-working them; even though we're not going to devote much class discussion, I will be expecting you to draw links between them and other works in the course (perhaps even in a critical response essay or final essay for the course).

We'll be using this kind of theory/practice organization in several other units (for instance, on the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement), so it's important to emphasize that although we'll be emphasizing conceptual issues on Tuesdays and aesthetic issues on Thursdays, there is no firm and unpassable divide between theory and practice or between concepts and aesthetics or even, for that matter, between non-fiction and fiction. As you're reading these works, try to be aware of the form, structure, and style of the essays and of the theoretical issues that the works of fiction are raising.

The other major way this unit is a good introduction to the main features of the course is that your first set of discussion questions and your first film analysis are due this week. Here are some tips on writing good discussion questions:

As for your film analyses, there are many directions to choose from, or to mix together, including:

But above all, you have to remember that this is a "film analysis," not a movie review. Your goal should be to relate what you see and hear happening in that film to what you've been reading and thinking about. Comments on the acting, cinematography, plot, dialogue, and so on are only useful insofar as they contribute to your argument about how the film relates to the central issues of the course.  In the same vein, comments that you liked or didn't like the film, plot summaries, one-paragraph observations, or other features that would show a lack of thought and consideration put into your film analysis are to be avoided.

Now, you'll have noted that I haven't talked about length yet. I would suggest writing it out in a word-processing program first, so that you can more easily draft, revise, put it aside and come back to it, and aim for a single-spaced page or so which, when it's in a shape you like, you can then copy and paste into an email message addressed to the listserv. A bit shorter and a bit longer is ok, but it should be a fairly sustained informal essay, so don't let it get too short. But by the same token be as concise as possible out of courtesy to your classmates. The key thing is to generate an interesting perspective on the film and explore questions or connections in more detail than you'd be able to in class with less at stake than doing the same thing in a critical response or final essay.  In short, think of each film analysis as an informal interpretive essay, in which you're trying to make a point about the film in question, to get people to understand why you interpret the film the way you do.

Above all, you should use the film analysis as a space to reflect on what you've been seeing, reading, and thinking about in this course.  Treating the film analysis (or, for that matter, the discussion questions) as some sort of clock-punching rote exercise will get you nowhere--on the one hand, it will hurt your class participation/preparation grade (which is a significant portion of your final grade), and on the other hand, it will give you little practice in the critical thinking and argument-developing skills that are so central to good performance on your two essays in the course.

I'll read your analyses and write some sort of response over the weekend, so be checking your email and reading each other's emails when you get a chance over the weekend, and feel free to refer to people's ideas in class on Tuesday as we begin our discussion of Frederick Douglass's famous slave narrative.

Some specific Daughters...-related suggestions might help you not only generate your first film analysis, but also help flesh out some of the preceding tips. The film is set in 1902, not far off from the time that Dunbar and Chesnutt were writing, so you might look for connections there. The myth of the flying Africans that we saw in "All God's Chillen Had Wings" is told and retold several times in the film; you might write on the differences between the versions and what they reveal about the speaker's attitudes and motivations. Today's lecture and discussion about the politics of dialect and discourse have all sorts of applications to what seem to be central issues in the film, including the characters' various attitudes toward Yellow Mary or Nana, toward the past and future, and toward Sea Island or gullah culture/vernacular. You might consider Johnson's suggestions about future directions artists interested in the vernacular should take and see which Dash listened to, which she disagreed with, and what other things she was trying to accomplish. You might take a few of Hurston's key claims about "the characteristics of Negro expression" and consider Dash's possible perspective on them based on what you see happening in the film (if you look at the Geechee Girls website on the links page, for instance, there's a tribute to Hurston on it). Don't feel that you have to choose one of these options--in fact, I'm much more interested in what you come up with on your own--but if you find any of these suggestions useful as a starting-off point, make whatever use of it you see fit.

Suggestions for further exploration:

Week 3: Slavery I

As the Norton preface and introduction to the "Literature of Slavery and Freedom" section argues, the slave narrative is not only one of the originary African American literary genres, but also one of the first genres to be recognized as an original "American" literary form. Along with the poetry of Phyllis Wheatley and the oral/musical/non-literary/vernacular tradition we touched on last week, the slave narratives can be considered as foundational to all of African American literature. Hence we continue the "country" unit over the next two weeks by moving from the vernacular tradition to the genre of slave narrative (Douglass, Jacobs) and neo-slave narrative (Chesnutt, Johnson, and the three films in this "country" unit), along with a brief taste of poetry produced during or about slavery times (Wheatley, Frances E.W. Harper, Dunbar, Hayden).

This week we'll be focusing on the text by and figure of Frederick Douglass (we will turn to his "What to the Slave Is Fourth of July" during week 9, in the "nation" unit). His first slave narrative, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself is often the only work of African-American literature students encounter in an introductory survey of American literature. Douglass was one of the first African American authors to be included in the canon of American literature (perhaps only Toni Morrison is more firmly canonized in contemporary literary studies). Our goal this week will be to understand Douglass and his slave narrative in relation to the state of the Union around 1845 (the year it was first published)--in its historical context--as well as in relation to African American literary and cultural traditions.

For Tuesday's class, we'll begin by discussing Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust as a neo-slave narrative and contrasting its representation of slavery with Douglass's. And then we'll turn to major passages in the Narrative. Thursday's class will be organized largely by your questions, but in general, we will try to relate the movie version of Toni Morrison's novel Beloved to issues coming out of Douglass's Narrative. So be looking for connections and contrasts as you watch Beloved this Wednesday, and if you've seen it already, consider drafting discussion questions by Tuesday evening that enable us to effectively juxtapose these two very different works.

Suggestions for further exploration:

Week 4: Slavery II

This week we're exploring gender and genre differences in the experiences and representations of slavery. We're comparing Douglass's and Jacobs's treatments of gender and sexuality, we're comparing antebellum slave narratives with antebellum poetry (Harper, Wheatley), and we're comparing (if we have time) neo-slave narratives in the form of short stories (Chesnutt, Johnson) and poetry (Dunbar, Hayden). The reading load is a bit lighter, but the analytical load is heavy, given that we're also tracking how neo-slave narratives in film (Beloved and Down in the Delta) relate to the representations of rural life and of plantation slavery in the texts.  We'll be using Down in the Delta more in next Tuesday's discussion to help us make the transition from country to city than on Thursday, but as you watch the movie, be thinking about how the country is represented as opposed to the representations of the city as well as about how family and history is dealt with in the movie.

We covered a lot of ground this week, but we left much to be uncovered, as well.  Harper's poems "The Slave Mother" and "Vashti" deal with similar issues of separation of families and sexual abuse of black women under slavery, and it would be interesting to write a paper comparing and contrasting Jacobs and Harper's treatments of these issues.  The issue of Christianity and its support of slavery and racism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries also links all the texts we've read the past two weeks; you might compare and contrast Douglass, Wheatley, and Harper on this issue.  The issue of Christianity and its influence on early African American writers' views of Africa might be profitably explored in Wheatley's poems and Harper's "Ethiopia"--it continues into the twentieth century in such poems as Arna Bontemps's "Golgotha Is a Mountain" (NA 1240-1242) and Countee Cullen's "Heritage" (NA 1311-1314).  And of course, the monumental popularity of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin is something that mid-nineteenth-century African American writers had to respond to; see, for example, Harper's "Eliza Harris," which might profitably be compared and contrasted with Frederick Douglass's rhetorical strategies in his novella The Heroic Slave (surprisingly not included in the Norton, but which I can get for you) in a critical response essay.  One other connection worth pursuing is to trace the shift in images of a post-slavery, post-racism "paradise" or "promised land" in Wheatley's "On the Death Of Rev. Mr. George Whitefield," Harper's "Ethiopia," Hayden's "Frederick Douglass," and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" (all in the Norton).

Suggestions for further exploration:

Week 5: Migration

We begin the "city" unit this week by considering issues associated with the Great Migration.  I'd like to claim that I planned to pair Maya Angelou's reverse migration narrative Down in the Delta with August Wilson's dramatic meditation on the migration narrative in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom because the Chicago connection between them was so important and worth considering, but actually I had forgotten what specific city each was set in!  (It's too bad that I decided that Richard Wright's Black Boy and Native Son were too long to include in an introductory course, because both also represent Chicago.)  Good thing it worked out that way, though, because planned or unplanned, the range of comparisons and contrasts we can make between each text's representations of country and city is a great way to begin this "migration" unit of the "city" section of the course.  Wilson's play also brings up the issue of lynching, which we'll be treating from many different angles of vision in Thursday's class; our goal there will be to compare and contrast the emphases of each writer's treatment of lynching, and relate them to different phases of the anti-lynching movement.

In thinking about the readings for this week, you can apply some of the same questions that we asked of the slave narratives--about audience and the various writers' literary, rhetorical, and political strategies, about the kinds of arguments and assumptions they were writing against, about these works' relations to earlier and contemporary works by African Americans and others--to the anti-lynching essays and poems.  Such comparisons can also help you out as you're thinking about your critical response essay and final essay.  For instance, contrasting Ida B. Wells's argumentative and rhetorical strategies in her 1895 essay with Richard Wright's in his 1937 essay would most likely result in a fascinating critical response paper.

Suggestions for further exploration:

Week 6: Renaissance I

This week we'll return to the "theory/practice" structure of Week 2 while examining the Harlem Renaissance.  In Tuesday's class, we'll contrast the ways different characters in Spike Lee's movie would flesh out the oft-repeated phrases "do the right thing" and "fight the power", and build on that discussion to a consideration of the ways the different essayists from the 1920s would flesh out those phrases.  These essayists, after all, set the terms of critical debate during the Harlem Renaissance and influenced scholars' accounts and analyses of the period after it ended.  Hence, we'll be focusing on points of agreement (common themes, arguments, and rhetorical strategies) and disagreement (differing emphases, arguments, and political motivations) in the essays by Du Bois, Locke, Schuyler, and Hughes.  Then in Thursday's class we'll examine some of the autobiographical and quasi-journalistic accounts of the Harlem Renaissance by some of the writers who helped define it, so as to see what kinds of themes and issues emerge from these portraits of Harlem life and how they compare to the more theoretical style of the writers from Tuesday's class.  It may be worthwhile to read ahead to the literary portraits of Harlem by Rudolph Fisher and Langston Hughes due to be read by next Tuesday's class, because they also relate to this week's readings.  We're going to try to fit our discussion of Menace II Society into this class period, as well, to leave time for our guest lecturer next week to bring our attention squarely to Samuel Delany's contemporary rewriting of the Harlem Renaissance through his family history.

My goal in introducing you to the Harlem Renaissance through these various responses to and representations of urban life is less to have you read a good range of literature produced during this period than it is to give you a sense of the major issues and problems in which those who have written on (and wrote during) the period have been most centrally interested.  You can always go back to the Norton itself to read a wider selection of the literature itself, or take another course devoted exclusively to twentieth century literature (or even more focused in its scope); my goal here is to give you a sense of the debates and discussions that frame the Harlem Renaissance, so that when you read more literature written during this period, you have a framework in which to understand it.

Suggestions for further exploration:

Week 7: Renaissance II

Don't forget that reading responses for this week are due by 4 pm on Monday!  That's because we won't have class on Thursday, so there's no point in asking questions for a class discussion that's not going to happen.  The other reason reading responses are due early this week is so that our guest lecturer, Jeffrey Tucker of the University of Rochester--who will give a lecture on Samuel Delany's "Atlantis:  Model 1924" in Tuesday's class, answer your questions, and help me lead a discussion on the act of looking back on the Harlem Renaissance--can get a sense of the kinds of issues and passages that interest you most.

Another important thing that will happen this week is that the assignment sheet for the first critical response essay will be posted to the main course page.  Finally, I will also e-mail each of you mid-term assessments of your work in the course to date.  These should give you a good sense of where you stand in the course and what you need to work on to improve your standing.  So be checking the course web site and your email regularly before you leave for break (if you leave for break).

Suggestions for further exploration:

Week 8: Post-Renaissance

Your critical response essay is due next week, but the idea is for you to take advantage of last week's October Break to free up some thinking and writing time for yourself. You can think of this paper as a dry run for your final essay, or as an opportunity to pursue ideas that originated in one of your film analyses in a more focused and developed manner.  Please see the above for various suggested topics for the critical response essay, and click <a href="index.htm#cr">here</a> for the assignment sheet.

This week we are concerned with the changing images of the city in the 1930s through 1950s, in the wake of the Harlem Renaissance.  We consider how black women writers engage the city in their fiction, and, as with our analysis of the slave narratives, consider what difference gender and sexuality makes to a writer's "take" on the city.  Our guest lecturer, Mark Anthony Neal of SUNY Albany, will use the traditions of and transitions in black popular music as a means of tracking different generations' responses to the conditions in and images of city during and beyond this period.

As with all the units, we are just skimming the surface of the rich range of literature and music produced during this period.  Feel free to read more widely in the Norton for a sense of this range and richness (I recommend Gwendolyn Brooks's Maud Martha in particular, because of its influence on subsequent novels by black women writers), but also be aware that the Norton selections themselves are meant to be an introduction, so that you will have to find such major novels as Richard Wright's Native Son and Black Boy, Ann Petry's The Street, Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones, William Attaway's Blood on the Forge, and Chester Himes's If He Hollers Let Him Go on your own.  In terms of non-fiction prose, W.E.B. Du Bois's 1940 autobiography Dusk of Dawn, Ralph Ellison's book of essays Shadow and Act, and Malcolm X's Autobiography are essential to understanding the culture and politics of the mid-twentieth century.

Our movie and lecture this week will provide o.  Some of us will view Slam and others of us will travel to Rochester to hear Angela Davis speak on the death penalty, and the injustice of the impending execution of black journalist and activist Mumia Abu-Jamal (scheduled for December 2), and what she calls "the prison-industrial complex."

Suggestions for further exploration:

Week 9: Color Lines

We shift to the "nation" unit this week, which is centrally concerned with two different versions of nationalism that have appealed to many black writers and intellectuals--on the one hand, U.S. nationalism (Americanism, patriotism, the American dream, and so on), and on the other, black nationalism (which ranges the ideological spectrum:  the Black Panthers are quite different from Asante's Afrocentrism which in turn is quite different from the Nation of Islam).  We will endeavor to track different writers' relations to these two intellectual and political traditions, with the understanding that neither is reducible to one side of the simple binary of "assimilationism" vs. "separatism."  To reduce commitment to U.S. nationalism to a desire for "assimilation" is a tragic and false assumption:  as we saw in the "city" unit, a writer like Alain Locke could praise the growing and changing "race consciousness" in Harlem precisely for (in his view) its Americanism, and as we will see in Du Bois's essays from The Souls of Black Folk, his commitment to U.S. nationalism (evident in his call for full citizenship and other rights) in 1903 stemmed from his sense that African Americans had in part created American culture and society.  It is also important to recognize that the writers who share a commitment to U.S. nationalism disagree on all sorts of matters, and that their different political and rhetorical strategies were meant to intervene on a particular historical conjunction that is quite different from our own (hence we need to analyze what David Walker was attempting to do in 1829, what Langston Hughes was attempting to express in 1925, and what Melvin Tolson was attempting to trace in 1944, and to attend to the similarities and differences between Douglass's oration, Du Bois's and Baldwin's essays, and King's letter).  At most, what these writers share is a refusal to equate "white" and "America," an attempt to put race matters in a national frame and on a national stage (i.e., slavery as not just a Southern problem in the mid-nineteenth century but a national one; race as not just an urban issue since the '30s but a national one), and a desire to create new national narratives for America.  Our goal is to engage the complexities of these writers' re-thinking and re-visioning of U.S. nationalism.  Later in the semester, we will have to go through a similar process of learning to engage the complexities of black nationalist discourses, to learn how to avoid a reductionist approach that would equate black nationalism and "separatism."

But for this week, we'll sample a range of U.S. nationalist writings, in a kind of prelude to reading Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man as a complicated meditation on race and democracy in the United States.  Like Frederick Douglass's Narrative, W.E.B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk, Jean Toomer's Cane, Richard Wright's Native Son, and Toni Morrison's Beloved, Ellison's novel is considered by most scholars to be at the core of both the African American and American literary traditions.  In much the same way that Tolson's "Dark Symphony" draws on modernist aesthetics to construct a poetic overview of African American literature and history (one in which the poem's form and structure contribute as much to its meaning as the overt statements in it), Invisible Man confronts the central issues of post-WW II American democracy and culture.

The documentary films we're seeing this week , Sa-I-Gu and The Bombing of Osage Avenue, both attempt to register the voices and perspectives of those who were unheard and unseen (or misrepresented) in the national media during two of the many infamous "police actions" in the past two decades--Korean and Korean-American shopkeepers in Los Angeles in 1992 and the community members whose block was destroyed by Philadelphia police in 1985--in all their complexity and ambivalence.  While the LA "riots" became a national media event, the attack on MOVE has received comparatively little national attention (say, compared to Waco), but both show how what may seem to be exclusively city-related events (riots, police actions) must be understood in a national context.

Suggestions for further exploration:

Weeks 10 and 11: Black...America

The preliminary proposal for your final paper is due in two weeks (F, 11/5). See the main page for more details and advice, but the general idea is that by the end of October you should have several possible ideas you'd like to pursue further. What this proposal is about is getting you to put those ideas on paper and discuss the pros and cons of each. Over the next few weeks, you should be doing whatever decision-making, research, re-reading, note-taking, and pre-writing exercises you find most helpful for getting your analytical juices flowing--and you'll meet with me early in November to help direct that flow--so the more detailed and thoughtful you are in this preliminary proposal, the better. That way I can have more information to go on while helping you choose the idea you find most interesting for your final paper.  There's no time like the present for thinking about ideas for the final paper.

Reading Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man while you're thinking about this proposal should be quite productive for you, as Ellison's novel is, in its own way, an analysis of the same country-city-nation issues that have structured this course.  Use your reading of Invisible Man as an opportunity to test how far you've come thus far in the course, as well.  The issues he raises and scenarios he treats should be quite familiar to you; the techniques of close reading I've been emphasizing should help you understand the wider significance of his often surrealistic plot.

Suggestions for further exploration:

Week 12: Black Arts

As with the Harlem Renaissance unit, we're going to be investigating the relation between claims made in manifesto-style essays that announce the black aesthetic movement's project and what happens in poetry and stories written during and after the movement's high water mark.  Of particular interest will be our consideration of the gender politics of black nationalism, and the ways in which women writers committed to the movement negotiated a space for themselves within it, in the face of restoration of black patriarchy many of its leaders seemed to be advocating.

Suggestions for further exploration:

Week 13: Colonialism

OK, this week before you leave for break you have to turn in your polished proposal for the final paper. Over the previous few weeks you should have been focusing your ideas on one topic. Your job in this proposal is now to transmit your vision for your paper to your peers, to convince them that your topic is interesting and important. The earlier you think about what you want to investigate and why--that is, both the parameters of your project and your goals/purposes/reasons for pursuing it--the better off you'll be for the writing of the actual essay itself.  Remember that the key question a proposal has to answer is "so what?"--why does what you want to analyze matter?  The reading load for this week is very light, both to give you a chance to focus on this proposal, which will be graded on its clarity and persuasiveness, and to catch up on previous readings/look ahead to the last novel in the course, Paule Marshall's The Chosen Place, The Timeless People.  We're going to be reading several examples of twentieth-century African-American writing that looks beyond the borders of the United States this week, so be prepared to discuss patterns, juxtapositions, and intersections among the works, as well as offer intepretations of specific passages in these works in class discussion.


How, you may ask, could I possibly have anything to tell you about a week in which we have no class meetings? Well, here's the answer: even though there are only two weeks left in the semester, you are going to need to use this break wisely. If you can finish Paule Marshall's The Chosen Place, The Timeless People over this break, you will only need to refresh your memory before class about the section of the novel we'll be discussing that day. Then you'll be able to focus your efforts on generating a rough draft of the final essay well in advance of the due date--so you can work on revising it in the last week of classes, rather than composing it. In fact, you might even consider getting some ideas down on paper over the break--hey, if you've gotten a topic you really care about, this should actually be the most exciting time of the semester. If you plan ahead, the last two weeks of class will be a breeze; if not, they will be anything but.

Week 15:  Trauma

We'll be discussing roughly the first half of Paule Marshall's novel in class this week.  I'll be available to meet with you to discuss your final essay, as well.

Week 16:  Mourning

We'll be discussing roughly the second half of Marshall's novel in class this week.   I'll be available to meet with you to discuss your final essay, as well.

M A I N * S C H E D U L E * N E W S * L I N K S * R E S E R V E S

EN 240: Intro to African American Lit and Culture, Fall 1999
Created: 8/23/99, 11:10 pm
Last modified: 11/13/99 5:27 pm