Graduate Course Description

350:655 - Early African American Literature: Forms, Genres, Politics

Course No:  350:655
Index # - 15992
Distribution Requirement:  A3, A4, C, D
Wednesday - 4:30 p.m.  
MU 207

Early African American Literature:  Forms, Genres, Politics 

Douglas Jones

This seminar investigates the emergence of an African American literary tradition by tracing the formal, generic, and political concerns that occupied black writers and their readers from the late eighteenth century to the turn of the twentieth. Eschewing a strictly chronological approach, we will juxtapose colonial and antebellum literary productions with postbellum and fin-de-siècle texts to consider the extent to which authorial identity (i.e., race, gender, sexuality, nationality, political affiliation) denotes a piece of writing belongs to a specific “literature.” In recent years, this line of inquiry has reinvigorated the field of African American literary studies, prompting many to reconsider long-held assumptions regarding authorship, periodization, and the intersection of literary and racial politics. But as we will discover time and again throughout this seminar, black American writers, critics, and readers have always questioned just how distinctive their race made their writing. In 1855, for instance, a contributor to Frederick Douglass’ Paper concluded that African American literature “exists only, to too great an extent, in the vast realm of probability.”
Some of the questions we will engage are: How does shifting our attention from racial identity to processes of racialization alter the ways in which we determine constitutes a literature? Which, if any, discursive, figurative, and narrative conventions and tropes in black-authored texts recur across different historical conjunctures? And in what ways do those historical conjunctures alter the form and function of those conventions and tropes? Are there other ways to periodize African American writing besides conventional historiographical divisions, such as the epochs of slavery, Reconstruction, and the Progressive Era? How might those alternate periodizations revise the very meaning of “African,” “American,” and “literature”?

The structure of this seminar will also allow us to consider more local, author-specific concerns. For example, we will read slave poets Phillis Wheatley, Jupiter Hammon, and George Moses Horton alongside the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, a child of slaves, and Frances Harper, a free black abolitionist, to query the relationship between (racial) affect and lyricism; Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and their Friends alongside Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition to study how fiction serves as historiographical repair; David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World alongside treatises by Alexander Crummell and Edward Blyden as well as Sutton Grigg’s Imperio in Imperio to consider the role of print culture in the emergence of black nationalism and Pan-Africanism; the work of Maria Stewart and James McCune Smith alongside that of W.E.B. Du Bois to trace the development of the black American essay; William Wells Brown’s Clotel and The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom alongside Pauline Hopkins’ Hagar’s Daughter and Peculiar Sam to probe the distinctive expressive possibilities of the experimental novel as well as the intersection between embodiment and literary history; the autobiographical work of Frederick Douglass alongside that of Booker T. Washington to investigate the formalism of writing a (black) life.

Secondary readings will include both new and foundational criticism.