English 203

Graduate Readings: The Political Economy of Life and Death in African American Literature and Culture

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
2 Spring 2017 JanMohamed, Abdul R.
W 3-6 104 Dwinelle

Book List

Christianse, Yvette: Unconfessed; Butler, Octavia: Kindred; Gains, Ernest: A Lesson Before Dying; Johnson, James Weldon: The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man; Jones, Gayl: Corregidora; Morrison, Toni: Beloved; Morrison, Toni: Bluest Eye; O'Brien, Mary: The Politics of Reproduction ; Walker, Alice: Third Life of Grange Copeland; Wiedman, John: The Lynchers

Other Readings and Media

See below.


Using psychoanalytic, phenomenological, and economic theorization of death and life, this course will examine instances of the political economy of life (and birthing) and death in African American literature.   

We will read the (Euro-American) exegetic theorization of life and death against the grain of the diegetic theorization of birthing, life, and death that is embedded in African American literary texts, in particular in some of the post-civil rights black feminist texts that focus on birthing and death.  

The relation between life and death can be seen as binary or as dialectical, or one can map it as a matrix of exchange, in which, like Marx’s articulation of use and exchange values, life and death function as mutually constitutive and, at the same time, mutually exclusive.  Slavery can be seen as being constituted around a “death contract” (mostly implicit, at times explicit): the vast bulk of the slave’s labor and erotic energies (i.e., his/her “life”) are “exchanged” for the postponement of his/her death, a postponement that is instantly and arbitrarily revocable.  The threat/fear of death functions as the exchange mechanism enabling the transformation of erotic energies into surplus value.

I am particularly interested in the contradiction of the slave mother who is forced to birth a child into death-bound subjectivity, to give life to a socially dead subject. These tensions of the constitutive-exclusive relation between life and death are brilliantly articulated and theorized in novels such as Beloved.

A list of the theoretical texts and a reader will be posted on bCourses.  Mary O’Brien’s The Politics of Reproduction is a required text; it is out of print but inexpensive copies are available online bookstores.  

Possible literary texts:  A Lesson Before Dying, Beloved, Bluest Eye, Corregidora, Kindred (and “Blood Child”), The Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man, The Lynchers, Third Life of Grange Copeland, Unconfessed.

Other Recent Sections of This Course

Back to Semester List