Welcome to the Department of English at Rutgers University

Course No:  350:655
Index: 18031
Distribution Requirement:  A5, C, D
Wednesday - 4:30 p.m.
MU 207

Seminar:  Slavery in the African American Imagination

Evie Shockley

In this course, we begin with a question that arises from issues confronting the U.S. with great urgency today. Namely: what is the meaning of “race” for people of African descent in this nation, in a period simultaneously defined by a widespread understanding of biological racism’s scientific bankruptcy and an accumulating body of evidence that black lives still matter less than others? (We might point to “the new Jim Crow” of mass incarceration, the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, and the impunity with which people murder African Americans, as specific instances.) With this socio-historical context in mind, we ask the literary/cultural question: why have the condition and institution of slavery loomed so large in the imagined space of creative writing and other arts by African-descended people in the contemporary period? The work of the course will follow from these two questions. We will engage with a variety of black-authored texts from the seventeenth through the twenty-first centuries, but with an emphasis on the past fifty years, as a way of learning something about black subjectivity in what has been called (perhaps aspirationally) a “colorblind” or “post-racial” period in U.S. social history. In the same process, we will seek a greater clarity about the poetics of slavery and how it informs a broad spectrum of black aesthetics.

Works by Phillis Wheatley, Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, David Drake, George Moses Horton, Harriet Jacobs, all black artists who experienced enslavement as chattel firsthand, will serve as important touchstones for us, as they have for many more recent artists over the last century and a quarter. We will spend the bulk of the semester thinking about imaginative engagements with chattel slavery in the black literature (and visual arts) of two subsequent periods: 1960-1989 (the Black Power/Black Arts era and its immediate aftermath) and 1990-present (the turn-of-the century or contemporary period). We will combine our multi-genre survey of creative works imagining slavery with an examination of critical texts that seek to explain their significance as a category and interrogate the social and cultural afterlife of slavery in a variety of geographical locations.

Additional primary texts will likely be drawn from the following: Amiri Baraka, Slave Ship and/or Wise, Why’s, Y’s; Octavia Butler, Kindred, “Bloodchild”; Fred D’Aguiar, Bloodlines; Marlon James, The Book of Night Women; Charles Johnson, Middle Passage; Edward P. Jones, The Known World; Gayl Jones, Song for Anninho; Toni Morrison, A Mercy; Thylias Moss, Slave Moth; Mendi + Keith Obadike, Big House/Disclosure; Natasha Trethewey, Thrall; Sherley Anne Williams, Dessa Rose; August Wilson, The Piano Lesson. Critical/theoretical texts to include work by such scholars as Hortense Spillers, Ashraf Rushdy, Christina Sharpe, Arlene Keizer, Dennis Childs, Stephen Best, Soyica Colbert, Margo Crawford, Doug Jones, Alexander Weheliye, and Saidiya Hartman. Members of the class will prepare brief weekly responses, two class presentations (one on the readings; one on their in-progress final papers) and a 20-page research paper.

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