Graduate Course Description

350:607 - Black Is... Black Ain't: Currents in African American Literary and Cultural Theory

Course No:  350:607
Index # - 14888
Distribution Requirement:  B, C, D
Tuesday - 2:00 p.m.
MU 207

Black Is... Black Ain't: Currents in African American Literary and Cultural Theory

Maurice Wallace

This course is dedicated to new and emergent directions in black literary and cultural theory. It alternately outlines and probes the most generative currents of black thought bearing on literature, literary criticism, culture, aesthetics, history and epistemology. In practical and pedagogical terms, the course aims to help graduate students do (not reductively “apply”) theory and thus give speculative voice to (what it means to be engaged by and in) black study in the context of these discursive frames. Any rigorous undertaking of black study (which, to sensitive ears, sounds like nothing so much as a vague affirmation of Moten’s instincts concerning blackness as a “movement toward and away from death”) cannot escape the problems of method and archive, even if escape is (im)precisely that modality of thought and sociality black study cannot get by without. The literary and cultural preoccupations of contemporary black thought qua thought are continuous with, which is to say set in cross-hatched apposition to, forceful political, theological, and philosophical provocations, historical and futurist, blurring the outer edges of our somewhat narrower apprehensions of what “black is” and what “black ain’t.”

“Black is...Black Ain’t,” the titular heading beneath which the design, content, objectives and outer-limit provocations of this course have been gathered together, recalls Ralph Ellison’s now-classic Invisible Man (1952). Ellison’s modern black Odyssey-work and that fantastic preachment of black onto-theology pronounced in the novel’s prologue. This title, it should be noted, does not mean to gesture toward a positive ontology of what we might call black being, however; nor is it designed to posit a logic of categorization and classification for properly managing blackness in epistemological terms. Rather, it connotes at once a deeper interiority and denser exteriority to the object of blackness/black study than the taxonomic questions of definition, demarcation, and discipline—all reflexes of rational desire—allow. It is the graphic sign of the ellipses, then, more than the dialectic they construct out of Ellison’s (black) thought that best represents this course’s concerns in African American literary and cultural thought for “the blackness of blackness” African American literary and cultural thought are, in a way, after.

In terms practical and pedagogical, we shall, over the course of the semester, apply ourselves (to the degree it seems generative to do) to the working through of several rough postulates informing, and informed by, the theoretical labors of those guiding current thought, provoking current debate, and reconsidering neglected archives in contemporary black humanistic thought. The hope is to see postulation transformed into axiomatic reliability by way of close reading, historicization, amplification, general critique and new world/New World imaginings.

Scholarship (some new, some antecedent) by WEB Dubois, Frantz Fanon, Sylvia Wynter, Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten, Ronald Judy, Zakiyyah Jackson, Philip Butler and Joshua Bennett (with fictional extracts and poetry) will guide the thematic congealing of concern around “the Black,” humanism, animality and transhumanism in black critical contexts from slavery to futurity.