English R1A

Reading and Composition: Something Resolutely Indefinable: The African-American Novel, the Individual, and Sociological Thought

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
4 Fall 2018 Creasy, CFS
MWF 12-1 122 Wheeler

Book List

Baldwin, James: Giovanni's Room; Hurston, Zora Neale: Their Eyes Were Watching God; Johnson, James Weldon: Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man; Morrison, Toni: The Bluest Eye

Other Readings and Media

A course reader including short excerpts and essays, as well as writing exercises.


This class will consider how a series of important 20th-century African-American novels confront questions of individual identity, categorization, social definiition. To this end, we shall attend to the complex connection between the tradition of black American literature and the discourse of sociology—the science of social institutions and relationships. As an emergent scientific discipline in 20th-century America, sociology was, along with anthropology, an important resource that numerous black artists drew upon artistically as well as politically. However, sociology's aspiration to systematic categorization of social groups and interactions struck many as a problematic pigeonholing of the individual human being. While Zora Neale Hurston was a practicing anthropologist, in her novels she "tried to deal with life as we actually live it—not as the sociologists imagine it." More strenuously still, James Baldwin believed sociological thinking disavowed an irreducible kernel of uniqueness and freedom: the individual "is not, after all, merely a member of a Society or a Group or a deplorable conundrum to be explained by Science. He is—and how old-fashioned the words sound!—something more than that, something resolutely indefinable, unpredictable." With thoughts like these as our guiding lights, we shall attempt to consider the achievements of the African-American novel as an artistic form representing the paradoxical and often tragic relations between the individual and society. While our main focus will of course be race, other intersecting concerns such as gender and sexuality will also concern us.

Our readings will open onto the underlying pragmatical goal of this course, which is to facilitate the development of your critical reflection and writing skills. We will use the questions that this material poses of us, as well as those we pose of it, to construct persuasive and cogent arguments out of them, writing progressively larger essays with progressively more sophisticated conceptual substance. The semester will begin with a short diagnostic essay, followed by three papers of increasing length. A peer review process will help you as you revise at least two of these papers. In all, you will produce at least thirty-two pages of writing over the semester—including drafts and revisions. But we will endevour to bear in mind how each of these steps may transform that "all"—that is, the whole process of our learning.

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