Introduction to African American Literature
To study the African American literary tradition is to have a front row view of the making of the American republic and indeed the modern world. Slavery is the bedrock of this nation’s political and economic order, and, against all odds, the world the enslaved built became the basis of American arts and letters. Beginning with slavery and spanning the major historical and cultural developments in black life—i.e., Reconstruction, Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, post-Civil Rights era—we will examine key literary texts that animate each period. Using an interdisciplinary approach that combines textual and contextual analyses, we will read a variety of genres, from slave narratives to postmodern fiction, blues poems to Hip-Hop lyrics. While studying a range of literary conventions and cultural movements, we will pay close attention to broader historical shifts in American life over the past four centuries. We will ask: What constitutes the African American literary tradition? What are its recurring themes and motifs? What are its aesthetic and ethical commitments? How does this tradition enable us to understand one of the most powerful constructs of the modern world—race? How do black authors represent race and its inextricable ties to other markers of identity like gender, sexuality, and class? And, ultimately, how does this tradition empower us to grapple with the fundamental questions of what it means to be human? As the late Toni Morrison put it in her 1993 Nobel Prize lecture: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” Using the African American literary tradition, then, this course provides an occasion to contemplate the meaning and measure of life. Authors will include: Phyllis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Claudia Rankine, among others.