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Revisiting Racial Passing in the 21st Century
This is a course on racial passing, which many people wrongly believe is an antiquated phenomenon. Passing has historically referred to light-skinned African Americans who use their phenotypes to pretend to be white and enjoy the privileges of whiteness. As we will discuss in our seminar, today people pass in a variety of ways, and not just racially. For example, folks regularly pass economically, religiously, and/or through gender. In discussing contemporary passing, we will begin with President Barack Obama, who some have argued has engaged in a form of passing by having black skin yet “white politics.”

We will read primary and secondary material on this literary genre, to determine the tropes, images, themes, and formal elements that comprise “the passing narrative.” We will also consider the ways in which it has been expanded in this “post-race” era.

Primary texts will include:

James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Nella Larsen’s Passing

Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun

Danzy Senna’s Caucasia

Philip Roth’s The Human Stain

Brooke Kroeger’s Passing (collection of contemporary personal narratives)

Short Stories by Chester Himes, Langston Hughes, and Alice Moore Dunbar Nelson.

Films will include: “Imitation of Life” (1934 & 1959) and “The Human Stain” (2003).

Course requirements: class participation, short weekly responses, and a final paper. This class fulfills two English major requirements: African American Literature and the 400-level seminar.

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