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Race, Culture, Identity: Introductions and Overviews

Welcome to ENGL 240: Introduction to African American Literature and Culture. I think you'll find this a challenging but worthwhile course. Don't be intimidated by the amount of reading and writing in this course; instead, see it as an opportunity to develop your skills in those areas. If you put in the effort, make use of the resources available to you (including this course web site), and see me at the earliest hint of a problem, you'll do very well in the course--you'll learn a lot and have some fun at the same time.

So let me start by telling you a little bit about the course as a whole. Although this version of ENGL 240 is organized by place rather than by time, it does tend to 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 African American responses to a given location as they change over time. In each geographical unit, we'll be examining--as attentively and precisely as possible--how that place is represented, what values and conditions are associated with that place, how and to what ends various writers and artists are responding to social conditions in, historical legacies of, images of, attitudes toward, and narratives about a given place, and which social, political, or economic conditions or issues that writers are responding to may help us explain the changes in representations of or attitudes to that place.

So that's (part of) the big picture. Now, what will we be doing during this preliminary (conceptual, rather geographical) unit? Well, during our first three class meetings, we'll be getting to know each other, getting a feel for the course requirements and for our varying expectations, getting a feel for the resources available to us for Black Studies at Fredonia, and getting a feel for the diversity of African American literature. We'll be considering such questions as: why am I teaching/taking this course? what are my own expectations, hopes, worries, interests? how do my answers to these questions relate to everyone else's? why study literature in school? why study African American literature? what is the significance and effect of organizing literary study not by the more traditional "national literature" model (English, American, French, Spanish, Russian, and so on) but instead by social group (as in courses like this one or Latino, American Indian, Jewish, Women's, Gay and Lesbian, or Working Class Literature)? and why is the "nation" model more traditional than an "ethnicity" or "gender" or "sexuality" or "class" model, anyway? isn't a "nation" a kind of social group? for that matter, 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 African diaspora?

During our first three class meetings, then, we'll be considering our own and others' answers to these questions--and that's where the readings for the second week of classes come in. 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 right off the bat. (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 the historical events and movements that shaped their production and reception.) You should get in the habit of referring back to the timeline in your anthology (as well as to relevant links on the course web site) to help you orient yourself in space and time while reading the range of texts for a given day and preparing for discussion. The other reason we'll be discussing the preface and the timeline right from the start is so that we can analyze how the editors of the Norton Anthology answer the same questions that we've been considering. So keep the questions in the previous paragraph in mind as you read the preface and timeline--and try to track how they get answered by them.

The other set of readings that I've chosen to lead off the semester is a sampling of brief, well-known works (mostly poetry) that deal with the key concepts of this introductory unit: race, culture, and identity. Just as with the preface and timeline, read these literary works with the central questions of the course in mind. When you do that, I think you'll be amazed at the variety of answers to those questions that have been offered by different individuals in different times and places, and with different backgrounds. Try to identify some key patterns and tensions in these works and in their ways of answering the questions we've been considering in class. And consider the implications of this diversity "within the group"--how differences of gender, location, generation, class, religion, and so on play out within this tradition known as African American literature.

OK, so that introduces the readings. Now what about the assignments? Well, this unit gives you a chance to familizarize yourself with the technology that will prove to be invaluable in completing your assignments--and to use it to help you compare this course (what we're doing in it, how I've structured it) with others like it. In addition to doing the readings for the second week of classes, be sure to search the world-wide web for, and bring to class a print-out of, a syllabus that looks interesting to you from an "Introduction to African American Literature" course from another college or university. (I recommend using google.com as your search engine; more than any other search engine--even good ones like hotbot.com--google.com finds the most relevant sites when you craft well-defined searches.) When you turn in this syllabus in class Tuesday (or Thursday if you missed the Tuesday deadline), please include a sentence or four about why you found it interesting. I'll be copying the syllabi you all turn in, so you can see the diversity of approaches to organizing an Introduction to African American Literature course. Between the readings and the syllabi, you will have plenty of material for generating discussion questions. For more information on doing this, click here (remember that you have to follow the instructions on the main page for subscribing to the list before you can submit your discussion questions!). For your first set of discussion questions, you can come up with your own follow-up questions to the questions listed on this page--we'll spend some time early in the next unit considering what makes a discussion question interesting or provocative, so feel free to experiment with different kinds of questions. Also at the very beginning of the next unit will be your second major assignment--to find three web sites that you think should be added to the links page on the course web site and email then to me--and to explain to me in that email why you think those sites are important.

I know, it's a lot for the very beginning of a new semester. Don't worry--you can do it--and I think you'll find doing it pretty interesting, as well.

So let me close this "welcome to the course" page by taking a step back and considering the course as a whole again. The first three class periods are designed to give you a perspective on the course as a whole. The way they are structured is a kind of preview of the larger 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. For that reason, the readings in many weeks will follow the pattern set in this introductory unit: more abstract, critical, or theoretical works will often be assigned for Tuesday, while more creative, literary works that deal with similar issues will be assigned for Thursday. (This pattern will be particularly apparent in the weeks on the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement.) My goal in including shorter works by a great variety of writers is so that you can see for yourself what was being debated and announced in a particular time and place by black intellectuals and artists. Now, your job while reading and generating discussion questions is to look for patterns--both similarities and points of divergence or tension--when reading multiple essays, poems, stories, and so on. That is, your job when out of class is to devote some time to 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 point of the course 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. So take this introductory unit as an opportunity to practice making connections, generating questions, and considering your answers in relation to others'. That's what we'll be doing for the rest of the semester--I hope you find it as interesting and important as I do.

Suggestions for further exploration:

note: reserve readings will not be available for your use until next week at the earliest--look to the news page for announcements of when the reserves are in.

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ENGL 240: Intro to African American Lit and Culture, Spring 2001
Created: 1/17/01, 10:00 pm
Last modified: 2/5/01, 1:58 pm