About This Page
Because the geopolitical organization of this course departs from the more typical chronological structure of most introductory literature courses, I thought it would be worthwhile to explain the ideas behind each section on this page. Think of this page as something of a guide to the central issues of the course--at least as I conceived them while choosing texts to flesh out each unit. It may be helpful for you, as you're identifying your own central issues and questions these texts raise for you--or when considering possible paper topics--to refer back to this page for comparison.
Please note that the links on this page take you to the more detailed weekly schedule, which includes dates when readings must be completed, due dates for assignments, and updates on all the information that appears on the syllabus in the section "Schedule of Assignments." The links at the top and bottom of this page will also take you to the weekly schedule of assignments.
Although this course is organized by place rather than by time, it does follow a certain chronology. We are more likely to encounter texts from or set in the nineteenth century in the "country" unit, more likely to encounter texts from or set in the early- to mid-twentieth century in the "city" and "nation" units, and more likely to encounter texts from the late-twentieth century in the "world" unit. At the same time, though, the chronology is not strict. Works from very different time periods appear in the same unit because a major goal of each unit is to track black responses to a given place as they change over time. We'll be investigating how that place is represented, what values and conditions are associated with that place, and how different writers' representations relate. We'll also be considering how the films' representations of place relate to the texts'.
To help you "place" each assigned reading (in a historical as well as geographical sense), I'm having you read the preface and timeline from the Norton Anthology of African American Literature during the first week of classes. I'm not expecting you to memorize the information in the timeline, but over the course of the semester you should become familiar enough with it to associate Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes with the Harlem Renaissance, for instance, or Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs with the slave narrative, as well as draw connections between what we're reading and viewing and the historical events and movements that shaped their production and reception.
This brings up the final point about the structure of the course. I have designed the course to give you a framework for understanding African American literature--both the works that you read in class and works that I hope you will seek out in the future--and to give you practice in relating selected works to that intellectual framework. Thus, I've included a great number of essays by African American writers and critics, particularly in the Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts Movement units, so you can see for yourself what was being debated and announced in those periods. Thus, I've included shorter works by a great variety of writers from the Norton, so that you can see for yourself the diversity of approaches to representing and responding to a given place. It is your job to look for patterns--both similarities and points of divergence or contention--when reading multiple essays or multiple poems and thinking about what you want to discuss in the next class meeting. I will lecture at times--often at the drop of a hat!--but the goal is for you to join the conversation about how the works we're reading compare to each other and relate to the place under consideration.
Let's start off with what you're missing out on: we simply don't have space in the syllabus to read all the classic literary responses to life in the rural United States by black Americans--most notably Charles Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, or Toni Morrison's Beloved--nor do we have time in the semester to read classic works that bring together country and city, South and North--most notably Paul Laurence Dunbar's novel Sport of the Gods, James Weldon Johnson's novel The Autobiography of an ex-Coloured Man, Nella Larsen's Quicksand, the unexpurgated and complete edition of Richard Wright's autobiography Black Boy, Gayl Jones's Corregidora, or Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon. But that's the problem with an introductory course, after all: we could spend an entire semester not just on the "country" section alone, but on any one of the units within it--on the vernacular tradition and its relation to African American literary production, on slavery and its impact on African American narratives, and on the great migration and its influence on African American literature--without reading more than a fraction of the major works that relate to the units or the section.
Unfortunately, we only have three or four weeks to engage the key ambivalence toward the country in African American literature: on the one hand, it often represented as the repository of tradition, culture, and community (think of Down in the Delta or Black Is...Black Ain't, for instance), while on the other hand it is often represented as a site of intense violence, exploitation, and oppression (slavery, the rollback of Reconstruction, lynching, segregation...), or as stagnant, primitive, and isolated (think of many of the characters in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom or Daughters of the Dust). But over the course of the semester it's worth thinking about how a given writer represents country life and its challenges, or works with stereotypical images or narratives of country life, or reflects upon the relation of the country to the city, the nation, or the world.
If you thought you're missing out on a lot of country-related works, it'll probably make you feel worse to realize that we're missing out on an even greater number of city-related works, from the variegated cultural productions of the Harlem Renaissance and their relation to the modernist movement in Europe and America (which we couldn't possibly hope to do more than touch on in the two weeks we're devoting to it!) to such post-Renaissance engagements with the city as Richard Wright's Native Son, Baldwin's and Ellison's many essay collections, Gwendolyn Brooks's Maud Martha, Anne Petry's The Street, Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones, Amiri Baraka's play Dutchman, Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place, August Wilson's play Fences, or Rita Dove's book of poetry Thomas and Beulah--not to mention recent efforts to rethink the Harlem Renaissance era by such writers as Ishmael Reed (Mumbo Jumbo), Toni Morrison (most notably in Jazz, but she engages urban life in virtually every novel), or Samuel Delany (we're only reading a fragment of the brilliant novella Atlantis: Model 1924).
What we'll do instead is consider the contrast between representations of urban life or perspectives on the relation between country and city in early-to-mid-twentieth century African American literature and late twentieth century movies by African Americans and others. How have representations of the city changed over the course of the twentieth century? How does a given writer or filmmaker respond to the place itself and to typical images of and narratives about that place in their times? What's at stake in the differing representations of and responses to the city, from the Harlem Renaissance to the blaxploitation and gangsta films of the past thirty years?
Since just about every work of African American literature explicitly or implicitly comments on the state of the nation, I won't bother listing works that we're going to miss out on in this unit (except to complain that the Norton doesn't include Frederick Douglass's major novella The Heroic Slave, which is one of the key engagements with America in early African American literature).
Instead, I want to explain why we're reading the works we are reading. My goal here is for you to understand and reflect upon the tensions between claiming and critiquing "America" in African American literature. By this, I don't mean the "assimilation" vs. "separatism" binary that structures and delimits most discussions of the competing appeals of U.S. nationalism and black nationalism for black Americans. The writers who are "claiming 'America'" are not accommodating themselves to a preconstituted idea of what being an American means; on the contrary, they seek to destroy the assumption regnant throughout much of U.S. history that America is "a white man's country," by showing how African Americans have made the United States what it is and shaped its national culture. The writers who are "critiquing 'America'" are not simply rejecting white America or white Americans; they are questioning whether the attempt to transform "the American dream" or close the gap between American ideals and realities is realizable or even desirable, and are trying to generate an alternative to U.S. nationalism. This black nationalist project is neither unitary nor unproblematic, so we will need to be as attentive to its complexities and contradictions as we are to those in the writing that attempts to reframe U.S. nationalism and to show that "race" is not simply a regional or urban issue, but one that engages the entire nation.
There are any number of directions we could have taken in this section of the course--comparing literature by writers of African descent from outside the borders of the United States with African American literature, examining writings by African Americans who were active in pan-Africanist or third worldist movements, considering the reception of African American literature and cultural productions outside the United States, or discussing the impact of Africa and the slave trade on patterns in world history and political economy. We could have focused on the figure of W.E.B. Du Bois, whose novel Dark Princess and autobiography Dusk of Dawn situate African American history in a world context, or on novels like Gayl Jones's Corregidora or Maryse Conde's I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem that link North and South American histories, or on Martin Delany's hemisphere-spanning 1867 novel Blake; or the Huts of America.
Instead, we're going to focus on how a few selected twentieth-century poets and essayists represent global issues and on the way in which Paule Marshall's 1969 novel The Chosen Place, The Timeless People links the history of the slave trade and of slavery with the politics of development and neo-colonialism in the Caribbean of the 1960s. Like Ellison's Invisible Man, which we're reading in the "nation" section as a meditation on the country and the city in African American history, Marshall's novel offers an interested (and interesting) interpretation of the relation between past and present--and thus offers us the opportunity to compare it to the works we have been reading throughout the semester.