Welcome to the Department of English at Rutgers University

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When W.E.B. DuBois proclaimed, "the problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the Color Line," he highlighted vision and visual culture's crucial role in the construction of the modern racial landscape. Moving out from Du Bois' seminal provocation for us to think race alongside the visual, this course will explore the role that racial technologies and techniques played in development of African American culture and literature. Our investigation will begin in the years 1840s, a period that saw the emergence of the daguerreotype and the slave narrative. From here we turn our attention to the final decades of the nineteenth century – a period often heralded as the age of mechanical reproduction – where we will investigate the how the emergence of photography, film, as well as new forms of mass spectacle and theater, impacted black literary and cultural production.

Our course will end with a consideration of twentieth-century African American artists and writers engagements with the limits and possibilities of new visual techniques and strategies, from the emergence of documentary photography in the 1930s to contemporary modes like the camera phone, genres like the "selfie," and artists like Kara Walker.

Our readings, assignments, and class discussions will be motivated by the following set of questions: What formal and narrative strategies did African American writers and intellectuals develop in response to a rapidly shifting visual landscape? What is the relationship between modes of visual representation – like the photographic portrait or the political cartoon – literary form? Can literature operate as a visual technology? We will seek to investigate these questions by closely analyzing novels, short stories, poetry, and non-fiction writing by authors such as Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, Pauline Hopkins, James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. DuBois, as well as works by Claudia Rankine and Toni Morrison. 

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Graduate Program in English


Statue of "Willie the Silent"