English 133T

Topics in African American Literature and Culture: Orality and Black Literature

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Spring 2009 Best, Stephen M.
Best, Stephen
TTh 12:30-2 122 Wheeler

Other Readings and Media

The Classic Slave Narratives, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed.; Three Negro Classics, John Hope Franklin, ed.; Charles Chesnutt, The Conjure Woman and Other Tales.


African American expressive culture has been driven by an affinity for the oral in the form of sermons, speeches, work songs, slave songs, spirituals, and the blues; yet the claim for black humanity has often rested upon an assumed connection between literature and 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 is the relation of this literature’s recurrent, slippery orality to a codified, authenticating literary apparatus?  How does speaking relate to subjectivity?  What are the politics of speaking, reading, and writing in British North America and the emergent United States? 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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