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Nation


Since just about every work of African American literature explicitly or implicitly comments on the state of the nation, I won't bother listing works that we're going to miss out on in this unit (except to complain that the Norton STILL doesn't include Frederick Douglass's major novella The Heroic Slave, which is one of the key engagements with America in early African American literature).

Instead, I want to explain why we're reading the works we are reading. My goal here is for you to understand and reflect upon the tensions between claiming and critiquing "America" in African American literature and culture. By this, I don't mean the "assimilation" vs. "separatism" binary that structures and delimits most discussions of the competing appeals of U.S. nationalism and black nationalism for black Americans. The writers who are "claiming 'America'" are not accommodating themselves to a preconstituted idea of what being an American means; on the contrary, they seek to destroy the assumption regnant throughout much of U.S. history that America is "a white man's country," by showing how African Americans have made the United States what it is and shaped its national culture. The writers who are "critiquing 'America'" are not simply rejecting white America or white Americans; they are questioning whether the attempt to transform "the American dream" or close the gap between American ideals and realities is realizable or even desirable, and are trying to generate an alternative to U.S. nationalism. This black nationalist project is neither unitary nor unproblematic, so we will need to be as attentive to its complexities and contradictions as we are to those in the writing that attempts to reframe U.S. nationalism and to show that "race" is not simply a regional or urban issue, but one that engages the entire country.

This unit is centrally concerned with two different versions of nationalism that have appealed to many black writers and intellectuals--on the one hand, U.S. nationalism (Americanism, patriotism, the American dream, and so on), and on the other, black nationalism (which ranges the ideological spectrum: the Black Panthers are quite different from Asante's Afrocentrism which in turn is quite different from the Nation of Islam). We will endeavor to track different writers' relations to these two intellectual and political traditions, with the understanding that neither is reducible to one side of the simple binary of "assimilationism" vs. "separatism" and that both traditions have multiple internal debates within them. To reduce commitment to U.S. nationalism to a desire for "assimilation" is a tragic and false assumption: as we saw in the "city" unit, a writer like Alain Locke could praise the growing and changing "race consciousness" in Harlem precisely for (in his view) its Americanism, and as we will see in Du Bois's essays from The Souls of Black Folk, his commitment to U.S. nationalism (evident in his call for full citizenship and other rights) in 1903 stemmed from his sense that African Americans had in part created American culture and society. It is also important to recognize that the writers who share a commitment to U.S. nationalism disagree on all sorts of matters, and that their different political and rhetorical strategies were meant to intervene on a particular historical conjuncture that is quite different from our own (hence we need to analyze what David Walker was attempting to do in 1829, what Langston Hughes was attempting to express in 1925, and what Melvin Tolson was attempting to trace in 1944, and to attend to the similarities and differences between Douglass's oration, Du Bois's and Baldwin's essays, and King's letter). At most, what these writers share is a refusal to equate "white" and "America," an attempt to put race matters in a national frame and on a national stage (i.e., slavery as not just a Southern problem in the mid-nineteenth century but a national one; race as not just an urban issue since the '20s but a national one), and a desire to create new national narratives for America. Our goal is to engage the complexities of these writers' re-thinking and re-visioning of U.S. nationalism.

We will go through a similar process of learning to engage the complexities of black nationalist discourses, to learn how to avoid a reductionist approach that would equate black nationalism and "separatism." We're going to be investigating the relation between claims made in manifesto-style essays that announce the black aesthetic movement's project and what happens in poetry and stories written during and after the movement's high water mark. Of particular interest will be our consideration of the gender politics of black nationalism, and the ways in which women writers committed to the movement negotiated a space for themselves within it, in the face of a restoration of black patriarchy that many of its leaders seemed to be advocating.

Suggestions for further exploration:




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ENGL/INDS 240: Introduction to African American Literature and Culture, Spring 2005
Created: 3/18/05 2:49 pm
Last modified: 3/18/05 2:49 pm