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Country


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, between the 1899-1903 and the 1922-1937 uses of vernacular in fiction and poetry, between Chesnutt's and Douglass's treatments of black folk cultures and beliefs, between Douglass's slave narratives and Harper's poetry, between Douglass's slave narratives and Wright's autobiography, between Brown's migration-themed poems and the anti-lynching poems, and among the various anti-lynching poems.

Suggestions for further exploration:

Each of the three topics treated below can become the subject of a final research project.




M A I N * N E W S * L I N K S * R E S E R V E S


ENGL 240: Introduction to African American Literature and Culture, Fall 2003
Created: 8/25/03 5:43 pm
Last modified: 9/10/03 12:34 pm