English 133A

African American Literature and Culture Before 1917

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Fall 2011 Best, Stephen M.
Best, Stephen
TTh 11-12:30 121 Wheeler

Other Readings and Media

Gates, H.: The Classic Slave Narratives; Franklin, J.: Three Negro Classics; Chesnutt, C.: The Conjure Woman; Walker, D.: Appeal to the Coloured Citizens


African American expressive culture has been driven by an affinity for the oral; and yet the claim for black humanity has often rested upon an embrace of literacy. In this survey we will attempt to bridge these oral and literary impulses in an exploration of selected works from the canon of African American literature. We will concern ourselves not only with the conceptual distinctions between orality and literacy, but also with how those distinctions gather force within debates over the power of language in politics and history: Rather than a teleological progression from orality to literacy, why does one find in much African American literature a promiscuous coupling of the two? What particular role does speech (e.g., confession, testimony) play in the formation of the subject? What are the politics of speaking, reading, and writing in early America? How might slaves have apprehended the power of orality – rhetoric, eloquence, performative speech – at a time when magnificent effects seemed to follow from the act of “declaring” independence?

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