English 133T

Topics in African American Literature and Culture: The Novel and the Idea of Black Culture

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Spring 2019 Best, Stephen M.
MWF 11-12 130 Dwinelle

Book List

Baldwin, James: Go Tell It on the Mountain; Ellison, Ralph: Invisible Man; Hurston, Zora Neale: Their Eyes Were Watching God; Johnson, James Weldon: The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man; Morrison, Toni: Jazz; Whitehead, Colson: The Underground Railroad


For much of the last century, black writers have crafted modern works of literary art from the materials of black culture—Ralph Ellison and James Weldon Johnson found inspiration in jazz and other musical forms, James Baldwin reworked the black sermon into literary form, Zora Neale Hurston defended folk culture and black idiomatic expression as the fundaments of black art. Much of this activity unfolded against the backdrop of a fear or hope (triggered by skeptics of black aesthetic competence, but held by some black writers and scholars as well) that the root of black distinction lay in racial oppression, that the generative force behind black literature and culture were the traumas of slavery and Jim Crow segregation; a fear or hope that black culture had no “content” beyond oppression, or (surprising as this may sound to our 21st-century ears, though this amounts to the same thing) that there was no such thing as black culture. This class will introduce students to the debate around “the idea of black culture” through an exploration of the novels and critical writings of major figures in the debate: James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Toni Morrison, and Colson Whitehead.

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