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Songs of the Underground: Music and African-American Literature

ENGL 570.401

In 1951, James Baldwin wrote that “It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story.”  Here, Baldwin points to the fact that African-American writers have long considered black music to be a singular site of origin and a space of self-fashioning and occasionally, racial transcendence.  In this course, we will trace the manner in which 20th century African-American writers and critics have turned to musical practices, from the sorrow songs to jazz, from European classical music to hip hop, ragtime to rock, as an aesthetic blueprint and political alternative.  We will also read music history and criticism, by Amiri Baraka, Farah Griffin, Albert Murray, Fred Moten, Gutherie Ramsey, Daphne Brooks (to name a few), in order to examine the tensions and slippages between these literary representations of music and the actual histories of African-American musicians and challenges posed for black musical production.  Texts for this course will include W.E.B. Du Bois "Souls of Black Folk," James Weldon Johnson’s "Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man," Toni Morrison’s "Jazz," August Wilson’s "Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom," Ralph Ellison’s "Invisible Man," Gayl Jones’ "Corregidora," Kevin Young’s "Jelly Roll," Paul Beatty’s Slumberland, Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s "Passing Strange: The Musical" and Rita Dove’s "Sonata Mulattica."

Undergraduates need to fill out a permit form and receive the approval of the Graduate Chair, their advisor, and the professor for all 500-level courses.

 Cross-Listed: COML573:401


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