College of Arts and Sciences
ENGL/INDS 240: Introduction to African American Literature and Culture
Section 1: TTh 9:30-10:50, Thompson W231
Office: Fenton 265; M 10-12, 2-4, TTh 11-12, W 11-12, 1-3, and by appointment; 673-3856
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Web Page: www.fredonia.edu/department/english/simon/
ANGEL Space: https://fredonia.sln.suny.edu/default.asp
Tradition, Culture, Race, Identity: Introductions and Overviews, Spring 2013
Welcome to ENGL/INDS 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, writing, and reading in this course; instead, see it as an opportunity to develop your skills in these areas, as well as in time management, information literacy, and critical thinking. 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/INDS 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 that place, and which social, political, or economic events, 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 were we doing during this preliminary (conceptual, rather geographical) unit? Well, during our first few class meetings, we began 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 considered 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 few class meetings, then, we began considering our own and others' answers to these questions--and that's where the readings came in. To help you "place" each assigned reading (in a historical as well as geographical sense), I had you read the introduction from the Norton Anthology of African American Literature right off the bat. (I'm not expecting you to memorize the information in their 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 read the introduction 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 and reread the preface and timeline--and continue trying to track how they get answered by the editors of our anthology.
The other set of readings that I've chosen to lead off the semester is a sampling of brief, well-known works (mostly poetry, some personal essays) that deal with the key concepts of this introductory unit: tradition, culture, race, and identity. Just as with the introduction 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 build on our own early attempts in the first week of classes and continue identifying key patterns and tensions in these works and in their ways of answering the questions we've begun considering in this course. 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 gave us a chance to familiarize ourselves with the technology that will prove to be invaluable in completing the assignments. Between the readings and opening ceremony of Black History Month, you should have plenty of ideas to share on the course discussion forum on ANGEL.
I know, this is 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 both interesting and worthwhile.
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 few 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. 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 developed in a particular time and place by black intellectuals and artists. Now, your job while reading and planning for your in-class and online participation 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: