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City, Spring 2005
If you thought we were 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 takes on segregation-era Chicago like Richard Wright's autobiography Black Boy and August Wilson's play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom to the variegated cultural productions of the Harlem Renaissance (sometimes called the New Negro Renaissance to emphasize that it was a national phenomenon not limited to Harlem) and their relation to the modernist movement in Europe and America, to such post-Renaissance engagements with the city as Richard Wright's novel Native Son, Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man, Baldwin's and Ellison's many essay collections, Anne Petry's novel The Street (although we are getting a taste of it in our anthology), Paule Marshall's novel Brown Girl, Brownstones, William Attaway's novel Blood on the Forge, Chester Himes's novel If He Hollers Let Him Go, Amiri Baraka's play Dutchman, Gloria Naylor's novel 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 focus on representations of urban life or perspectives on the relation between country and city in early-to-mid-twentieth century African American literature. We'll be building on representations of the city in the slave narratives and neo-slave narrative we read by Douglass, Jacobs, and Butler in the country unit, as well as focus on the other end of the great migration that was the foreground of Wilson's play set in 1911 Pittsburgh. We'll get a chance to read several important works in their entirety--by Johnson, Brooks, and Hansberry--along with excerpts from many others. You will have the option for your critical essay on this unit to contrast late twentieth century movies by African Americans and others and consider how representations of the city have changed over the course of the twentieth century. More generally, we will consider how a given writer responds 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? Is the city a chance for a new start or just old wine in a new bottle? Is the city the cultural center of African American life, or does the country retain its position of prominence?
Suggestions for further exploration:
- Highly Recommended Movies: Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989, 120 min.); Boyz in the Hood (John Singleton, 1991, 112 min.); New Jack City (Mario Van Peebles, 1991, 101 min.); Deep Cover (Bill Duke, 1992, 107 min.); Menace II Society (Allen and Albert Hughes, 1993, 104 min.); Slam (Marc Levin, 1998, 100 min.)
- Wright and Left Politics. For a sense of the 1930s and 1940s political terrain in Harlem that Wright was implicitly commenting on in Black Boy, see the essays on that time period in Robin D.G. Kelley's Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class, Mark Naison's Communists in Harlem during the Depression, and William Maxwell's New Negro, Old Left: African American Writing and Communism between the Wars. Paul Buhle's Marxism in the United States: Remapping the History of the American Left, Barbara Foley's Radical Representations, and Michael Denning's The Cultural Front provide impressive re-imaginations of the period, as well.
- Harlem Renaissance. Although this unit provides us with an introduction to some of the key issues and debates during the Harlem Renaissance, and relates representations of Harlem to representations of black Chicago and Philadelphia, there is simply no substitute for reading as much of the literature of the Harlem Renaissance as possible. See my course on The Harlem Renaissance for one entry into the period. In fact, the Norton's selections are but the tip of the iceberg here. On reserve are several collections of stories, poems, and essays (including Within the Circle, Classic Fiction of the Harlem Renaissance, and The Sleeper Wakes: Harlem Renaissance Stories by Women) that can flesh out the Norton's offerings. A fine sampling to the range of literature and art produced during this period can be found in Alain Locke's edited collection, The New Negro (1925). But major works like Jean Toomer's Cane and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (which many place near the beginning and end of the period, respectively) are not to be missed. Arnold Rampersad has provided several major works on this period: besides editing The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, he has written a two-volume autobiography of Hughes and an intellectual biography of W.E.B. Du Bois, both of which examine the culture and politics of the first third of the twentieth century. George Hutchinson's The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White and Ann Douglas's Terrible Honesty both offer a fairly positive assessment of the influence of the Harlem Renaissance and African American cultural movements on American culture and society in the first half of the twentieth century--and seek to revise assessments by African American writers and critics who looked back on it more critically.
- Just as writers during and after the Harlem Renaissance wrote about "race riots" and tried to transform contemporary understandings of these events, so, too, did writers in the 1990s; see, for example, Robert Gooding-Williams, ed., Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising. It would be an interesting topic for a final paper to craft an argument about what's at stake in similarities and differences between an essay from this collection and an essay on the 1935 or 1943 Harlem riots.
M A I N * N E W S * L I N K S * R E S E R V E S
ENGL/INDS 240: Introduction to African American Literature and Culture, Spring 2005
Created: 2/18/05 9:02 am
Last modified: 2/22/05 10:48 am