African American Literature

This class, designed as an introduction to African American literature, will cover works starting with slave narrative, and ranging across genres including essays, autobiography, poetry, novels, short story, music videos, and film. As we sample the rich and varied texts that constitute African American literature, we will work to establish through-lines as well as distinct and sometimes competing accounts of what constitutes African American identity, and African American literature. We will consider how literature serves as a way—both individual and collective—to expose, survive, resist, at times arguably support, and also imagine alternatives to white supremacy and to the master narratives (including literary ones) that have sustained this ongoing history. The texts we will be studying engage slavery; Jim Crow; the prison industrial complex; and movements including abolitionism, the Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement, and the Black Lives Matter movement. As we read these texts to understand how they engage eras, events and movements, we also will consider how race intersects with other identity categories including those of class, gender, sexuality, nation; and of the political as well as literary significance of the genres and forms African Americans employ in creating African American literature.

Assignments: Two essays, 1200-1500 words each (30% each, 60% total); a final exam (20%); a group journal (10%); quizzes and other small assignments, some of them in-class (10%). Attendance and active participation are mandatory.

Student Learning Objectives:

You will become familiar with major works and currents in African American literature.

You will gain insights into and become conversant in critical, historical and political concepts, periods and events that are necessary to understanding African American literature.

As a writer, and in class discussions, you will gain experience undertaking close textual analysis with appropriate vocabulary and with situating this analysis in relation to a text’s historical, literary, and political contexts.

As a writer you will improve your ability to write a well-organized essay with a clear and compelling thesis, strong topic sentences, particular arguments supported by textual analysis, and a satisfying conclusion.

You will gain experience and fluency in posing questions about the significance of particular works as well as genres of African American literature, and about (African American) literature more generally.

You will have the opportunity to participate in a classroom community in which we can work together explore topics that are often difficult intellectually and emotionally.


Texts (tentative listing):


Frederick Douglass, The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider

Toni Morrison, Beloved

Claudia Rankine, Citizen

Ta-nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Patrisse Cullors, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir



Spike Lee (director), She’s Gotta Have It

Barry Jenkins (director), Moonlight (film)


Shorter readings and excerpts, videos, music (not a complete list):

Richard Wright, “Blueprint for Negro Writing”

James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues” and “Notes from a Native Son”

Malcolm X, excerpts from The Autobiography of Malcolm X

June Jordan, selections from Civil Wars

Audre Lorde, essays from Sister Outsider

Toni Morrison, “Unspeaking Things Unspoken” and “Recitatif”

Solange (album), A Place at the Table

Kristian Davis Bailey, “Traveling While Black”

“When I See Them, I See Us” (video)