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Changing The Country: Civil Rights Aesthetics and American Memory

ENGL 799.401

In 1963, James Baldwin wrote ?the future is going to be worse than the past if we do not let the people who represent us know that it is our country.?  Hoping to appeal to legislators and readers alike, Baldwin?s essay ?We Can Change the Country? captured the insurgent spirit and democratic sensibility that defined the Civil Rights era. While the Civil Rights Movement is remembered as the one of the most significant events in twentieth-century American political and social history, it is rarely regarded, however, as a turning point in American culture.  This stands into sharp contrast to two different phenomena: first, the significant role that American artists, like Baldwin, played within the Civil Rights movement; and second, the ideological and philosophical influence of the Civil Rights agenda on black cultural production.  Unlike the Black Arts Movement which fashioned itself as the cultural arm to the Black Power Movement, the idea of a ?civil rights aesthetics? or a dominating poetics that emerged alongside formal Civil Rights politics, remains unrecognized.  As a result, this interdisciplinary course will not only examine the emergence of Civil Rights artists, such as James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Gordon Parks, and Nina Simone, but also move past the single artist model to think about how speeches, visual symbols, and sonic landscapes also contributed to Civil Rights aesthetics.  Finally, we will think about how post-Civil Rights artists, like Deborah Grant, Leslie Hewitt, Charles Johnson, and Spike Lee, have grappled with and reshaped this legacy for contemporary audiences.

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