African American Literature: Constructing Racial Selves and Others

Open, Lecture—Year

This yearlong lecture will examine pivotal moments and texts in the history of African American letters, ranging from Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative (1789) to Saul Williams’s The Dead Emcee Scrolls (2006). Working our way through a variety of genres (elegy, drama, the captivity narrative, the slave narrative, the essay, public oratory, speeches, fiction, poetry, drama, polemical prose, autobiography, music, and film), we will explore a number of matters pertinent to literary studies in general, as well as those with specific implications for African American writing and writers. We will consider the circumstances of textual production and reception, ideas and ideologies of literary history and culture, aesthetics, authorship, and audience. We will focus our attention immediately on the emergence of African American writing under the regime of chattel slavery and the questions it poses about “race,” “authorship,” “subjectivity,” “self-mastery,” and “freedom.” We will consider the material and social conditions under which our selected texts were edited, published, marketed, and “authenticated.” Our ultimate aim is to situate our selections within the broadest possible contexts of their time and ours. We will also focus on the changing notions of racial identification in the 20th and 21st centuries, addressing how the wide array of genres shape and are shaped by pivotal cultural and political movements such as the “New Negro,” the Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights, Black Arts/Black Power, and Womanism, as well as current debates over matters such as hip hop, same-sexuality, incarceration, and “premature death.” Also, we will examine how the texts deal with recent questions about black identities and subjectivities that get funneled through notions of a postrace and/or postethnic (international) society. Some authors whom we might study include, but are not limited to, Thomas Jefferson, David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Wilson, Anna Julia Cooper, Charles Chesnutt, Booker T. Washington, Jean Toomer, W. E. B. Du Bois, Nella Larsen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Margaret Walker, Amiri Baraka, Huey Newton, Sonya Sanchez, Carolyn Rodgers, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Audre Lorde.