English 170

Literature and the Arts: The Writing on the Wall -- African-American Literature and Visual Art

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
2 Fall 2020 Best, Stephen M.
TTh 2-3:30

Book List

Ellison, R.: Invisible Man; Hughes, L.: The Sweet Flypaper of Life; Hughes, L.: The Weary Blues; Locke, A.: The New Negro; Morrison, T.: Jazz; Wright, R.: 12 Million Black Voices


We tend to separate art forms for the convenience of study and instruction, and to talk about writers in terms primarily of their influence upon other writers, but this is hardly how most artists work. In this course we will explore a tendency in African American art toward what the novelist Toni Morrison called liquidity: the ways in which artists of disparate disciplines “fold into, energize, and transfer the aesthetics of one another.” Another novelist, Ralph Ellison, saw what he described as “the planned dislocation of the senses” as the essential condition of fiction: “Here is where sound becomes sight and sight becomes sound, and where sign becomes symbol and symbol becomes sign.” While it is common to celebrate this liquidity in the traffic between literature and musical forms such as the blues and jazz, in this course we will consider a century-long conversation between literature and the visual arts, from the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s to the present. We will read Ellison and Morrison, Alain Locke, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Claudia Rankine—considering their work alongside that of artists such as Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Roy DeCarava, Gordon Parks, Beauford Delaney, Kerry James Marshall, Glenn Ligon, Isaac Julian, J.M.W. Turner, Pablo Picasso, Jeff Wall, and Kara Walker.

We will consider these text-image exchanges in the context of political debates about “representing the race,” the rivalry between words and pictures, as well as the long tradition of ekphrasis (the use of a work in one artistic medium to represent or respond to the work in another artistic medium). The course aims to inspire students in the belief that close reading and close looking are skills ideally developed in tandem.

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