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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, Jean Toomer's experimental novel (?) Cane, Nella Larsen's novel Quicksand, Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man, Richard Wright's autobiography Black Boy or his study of the great migration Twelve Million Black Voices, Toni Morrison's novels Song of Solomon, Jazz, 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 vernacular culture, slavery, and the great migration and their 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? Of claims that it's the source and origin and most authentic site of African American cultural production and of claims that its significance has been overvalued in black studies? 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--both within each day's reading or each week's topic, but also across days and weeks within the unit, and toward readings from the Tradition, Culture, Race, Identity mini-unit.
Suggestions for further exploration:
Each of the three topics treated below can become the subject of a final research project. Many of the books I mention below are not on reserve this semester, because our library already owns them; conversely, many of the books on reserve may address those subjects, but because they are so new, I may not have mentioned below.
- 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 "Vernacular Tradition" section [NA 3-149], particularly its introductory essays to each of the major categories within this section, and 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 music, such novels as Gayl Jones's Corregidora or American Indian 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; Angela Y. Davis's Blues Legacies and Black Feminism; and Mark Anthony Neal's What the Music Said, Soul Babies and Songs in the Key of Black Life.
- 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. For more by and on Douglass, see The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader and Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays. For more information on Jacobs, see 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.
- 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, Elizabeth Beaulieu's Black Women Writers and the Neo-Slave Narrative, Venetria Patton's Women in Chains, and Angelyn Mitchell's The Freedom to Remember. For those who liked Toni Morrison's essay called "The Site of Memory," in which she discusses her own literary project's relation to the slave narrative, there is also a wonderful collection called Conversations with Toni Morrison, which includes many interviews that address 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--beyond Octavia Butler's Kindred, that is--would have to include: David Bradley's The Chaneysville Incident, 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.
- My one big disappointment with the second edition of the Norton anthology is that they didn't add Richard Wright's lynching 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), although they did add other key Wright selections that we'll be reading in class. For a work set in the same turn-of-the century time period as when many of the poems we'll be reading in this week 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.
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: 1/28/05 5:07 pm
Last modified: 1/28/05 5:07 pm