M A I N * N E W S * L I N K S * R E S E R V E S
Let's start off with what you're missing out on: we simply don't have space in the syllabus or time in the semester to read in their entirety all the classic literary responses to life in the rural United States by black Americans--most notably Charles Chesnutt's collection of short stories The Conjure Woman, James Weldon Johnson's book of poems God's Trombones, Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple, and Toni Morrison's novel Beloved. Nor can we read all the classic works that bring together country and city, South and North (or Midwest, or West)--most notably Paul Laurence Dunbar's novel Sport of the Gods, James Weldon Johnson's novel The Autobiography of an ex-Coloured Man, Jean Toomer's experimental novel Cane, Nella Larsen's novel Quicksand, Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man, Toni Morrison's novels Song of Solomon and Paradise, Rita Dove's book of poems Thomas and Beulah, and August Wilson's play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. 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 fiction, 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 these topics.
Unfortunately, we have only a few weeks to engage the central ambivalence toward the country in African American literature: on the one hand, it is often represented as the key repository of tradition, culture, and community, while on the other hand it is often represented as a site of intense violence, exploitation, and oppression (or as stagnant, primitive, and isolated). What are we to make of this ambivalence toward the country in African American literature? Over the course of the semester--and particularly during this unit--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.
At the heart of this unit is making comparisons and connections, while recognizing differences and tensions. Particularly interesting comparisons and contrasts can be made between Johnson's and Hurston's takes on "dialect" and black expressive cultures and practices (1/30), between the 1899-1903 and the 1922-1937 uses of vernacular in fiction and poetry (2/1), between Chesnutt's (2/1) and Douglass's (2/6-2/8) treatments of black folk cultures and beliefs, between Douglass's slave narrative and Harper's poetry (2/8), between Douglass's slave narrative (2/6-2/8) and Wright's autobiography (2/13-2/22), between Brown's migration-themed poems (2/1) and the anti-lynching poems (2/15), and among the various anti-lynching poems (2/15).
Suggestions for further exploration:
Each of the three topics treated below can become the subject of a final research project. For the assignment sheet for the critical essay, click here.
- Highly Recommended Movies: Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1992, 113 min.); Black Is...Black Ain't (Marlon Riggs, 1995, 87 min.); Beloved (Jonathan Demme, 1998, 178 min.); Down in the Delta (Maya Angelou, 1998, 111 min.); The Language You Cry In (Alvaro Toepke and Angel Serrano, 1999, 56 min.).
- Vernacular: If you're interested in finding out more about the vernacular tradition, the best place to start is with the Norton's bibliography. For a concise example of how to relate a work of literature to the vernacular,
see Wahneema Lubiano's "The Postmodernist Rag: Political Identity and the Vernacular in Song of Solomon," in New Essays on Song of Solomon, ed. Valerie Smith. For a concise example of a cultural studies approach to the black vernacular, see Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham's "Rethinking Vernacular Culture: Black Religion and
Race Records in the 1920s and 1930s" (in The House That Race Built, ed. Wahneema Lubiano). For a more extended treatment of the vernacular's relation to literature and literary theory, see Henry Louis Gates's The
Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism and Houston Baker's Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature. Other important works on oral traditions include David Howard-Pitney's Afro-American Jeremiad: Appeals for Justice in America, Dolan Hubbard's The Sermon and the African American Literary Imagination, and Gayl Jones's Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature.
- For a brief history of the blues and examples of blues lyrics, see pages 22-36 of the Norton; for a similar treatment of jazz, see pages 55-59. For some poetry inspired by the blues in the Norton that is not required reading, see Sterling Brown, "Memphis Blues" and "Ma Rainey" [NA 1216-1218]; Langston Hughes, "The Weary Blues," "Homesick Blues," "Po' Boy Blues," and "Juke Box Love Song" [NA 1257, 1259-1260, 1266]; Robert Hayden, "Homage to the Empress of the Blues" and "Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday" [NA 1500-1501, 1510-1511]; Sonia Sanchez, "for our lady" and excerpts from A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women [NA 1904-1906]; Ishmael Reed, "Oakland Blues" [NA 2296]; and Al Young, "A Dance for Ma Rainey" [NA 2314-2315]. For poetry inspired by jazz, see, among others, the John Coltrane poems by A.B. Spellman, Jayne Cortez, and Michael Harper [NA 1955-1959, 2277-2280]; Langston Hughes, "Jazzonia" [NA 1255-1256]; Robert Hayden, "Soledad" [NA 1511]; Bob Kaufman, "War Memoir" [NA 1724-1725]; Clarence Major, "Round Midnight" [NA 2224-2245]; and Yusef Komunyakaa's "February in Sydney" [NA 2495-2496]. Any number of paper ideas coming out of contrasts between one or more of these works would work well for a critical response essay. Outside the Norton, such novels as Gayl Jones's Corregidora (which we will be reading later in the semester) or Native American writer Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues are major responses to the blues, just as Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo and Toni Morrison's Jazz are major responses to jazz and to the Harlem Renaissance, both of which we'll be turning to in the "City" unit. Several important studies of African American musical traditions include Tricia Rose's Black Noise, Mark Anthony Neal's What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture, and Angela Y. Davis's Blues Legacies and Black Feminism.
- Slavery: Scholarship on slavery is burgeoning, and has been for decades, so the following suggestions are only meant as an illustrative starting point--something akin to the angels dancing on the head of the needle in the haystack on the tip of the iceberg, if you catch my drift. Orlando Patterson's Slavery and Social Death, one of the most influential syntheses of the scholarship on slavery, is a great place to start (his first chapter provides a definition
of slavery that has influenced many literary and cultural critics), as is Robin Blackburn's magisterial The Making of New World Slavery. The Slave's Narrative, ed. Charles Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is a good place to start when considering the slave narrative as a genre, as is Robert Stepto's From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative, William Andrews's To Tell a Free Story, and Frances Smith Foster's Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Antebellum Slave Narratives. Two works that are well worth considering to see the most recent scholarship in the field are Saidiya Hartman's Scenes of Subjection and Jennifer Fleischner's Mastering Slavery: Memory, Family, and Identity in Women's Slave Narratives. See the list of reserves for other primary and secondary works on slavery and the slave narrative.
- The Norton includes excerpts from Frederick Douglass's two later autobiographies, My Bondage and My Freedom and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, and it is well worth comparing these later texts with his 1845 slave narrative. Many scholars are coming to see My Bondage and My Freedom as the most significant text of Douglass's career; it would be a great final project to read it in its entirety and produce a comparative analysis of the 1845 and 1854 narratives of his life. For more by and on Douglass, see The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader and Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays. The Norton also includes excerpts from other slave narratives, most notably Harriet Jacobs's and William Wells Brown's. The two best sources for more information on Jacobs are the full text of her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, edited by Jean Fagan Yellin, and Harriet Jacobs and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: New Critical Essays, eds. Rafia Zafar and Deborah Garfield. See Deborah Gray White's Ain't I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South for a classic treatment of gender and slavery, and check out the Norton's bibliography section on Jacobs for further suggestions. For complete texts of other slave narratives, see The Classic Slave Narratives and Pioneers of the Black Atlantic: Five Slave Narratives, 1772-1815. These works may prove useful if you want background while reading or come up with a question that none of us can answer, but they're most likely to be useful when you're working on your critical essay for the country unit or for your final essay. It would be fruitful to compare Douglass's and other slave narrators' representations of slavery in a final essay, for instance.
- Also in the Norton is a selection of other African American literature produced during the antebellum period, some of which we'll be reading in class. A comparison/contrast paper on the slave narrative's relation to other genres of African American or American literature before the Civil War would also be a productive topic.
- For looks at the genre of the "neo-slave narrative"--largely contemporary novels that revisit the slave narrative and the legacies of slavery as they play out in the present, but more generally any post-enslavement
engagement with slavery--see the collection Slavery and the Literary Imagination, edited by Deborah McDowell and Arnold Rampersad, my own essay in Race Consciousness, edited by Judith Jackson Fossett and Jeffrey Tucker, Ashraf H.A. Rushdy's Neo-Slave Narratives, and Elizabeth Beaulieu's Black Women Writers and the Neo-Slave Narrative. Toni Morrison has a major essay called "The Site of Memory" in which she discusses her own literary project's relation to the slave narrative (it's in a collection called Out There, which I'm not putting on reserve, but which isn't hard to find); there is also a wonderful collection called Conversations with Toni Morrison, which includes many interviews in which she discusses her writing of Beloved as a meditation on slavery. A quick list of neo-slave narratives in novel form that you might be interested in pursuing further would have to include: David Bradley's The Chaneysville Incident, Octavia Butler's Kindred, Maryse Conde's I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, Charles Johnson's Oxherding Tale and Middle Passage, Gayl Jones's Corregidora (which we will be reading later in the semester), Toni Morrison's Beloved, Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada, Margaret Walker's Jubilee, and Shirley Anne Williams's Dessa Rose.
- Migration: If you want to find out more about the "migration narrative," see Farah Griffin's book on literary and non-literary representations of the Great Migration, Who Set You Flowin'? The African-American Migration Narrative. The Museum of Modern Art has put together a wonderful collection of prose and paintings by Jacob Lawrence in The Great Migration--An American Story.
- The poems and essays on lynching we're reading in the migration unit are just the tip of the iceberg; if you are interested in pursuing this topic further, you might check out Jean Toomer's experimental work Cane [included in
full in the Norton], particularly the "Blood Burning Moon" and the "Kabnis" section, Richard Wright's poem, "Between the World and Me" (which is in part a response to the opening chapter of W.E.B. Du Bois's The
Souls of Black Folk), his essay "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," and his story "Long Black Song" [the latter two are included in the Norton]. For a work set in the same turn-of-the century time period as when many of the poems we'll be reading on Thursday were written, see Charles Chesnutt's amazing novel, The Marrow of Tradition, which puts lynching in the context of an anti-Reconstruction and anti-black backlash taking place in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. For secondary sources, see Angela Davis's Women, Race, and Class, Sandra Gunning's Race, Rape, and Lynching, Trudier Harris's Exorcising Blackness, and Stephen Michael Best's essay, "'Stand by Your Man': Richard Wright, Lynch Pedagogy, and Rethinking Black Male Agency," in the collection Representing Black Men, eds. Marcellus Blount and George Cunningham.
- As mentioned at the beginning of this page, we're only scratching the surface of the migration narrative as a genre with our considerations of Douglass's and Wright's autobiographies and the various poems on migration. The works mentioned in the opening paragraph of this page are excellent places to go to flesh out your understanding of this major motif in African American literature.
M A I N * N E W S * L I N K S * R E S E R V E S
ENGL 240: Intro to African American Lit and Culture, Spring 2001
Created: 1/24/01 4:20 pm
Last modified: 2/19/01 4:46 pm