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ENG 2390:

African-American Literature








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Course Rationale


This class was constructed alongside the Major American Books class and owes much to it structurally. In this course, students were introduced to African-American literature through DuBois's conceptual framework of "propaganda writing." This allowed for a direct connection with the common curriculum of composition courses: rhetoric and rhetorical appeals. However, it also allowed us to branch out into a framework for thinking about African-American literature as resisting "rational discourse," instead, like DuBois, constructing aesthetic practices that use collectivity and history as a mode of resistance. DuBois does this through the use of "sorrow songs," which served as the theme for the opening weeks. I found "sorrow songs" to be both a topic that students have considerable prior knowledge, but can be inspired by the unexpected possibilities in their different applications in literature. For example, in "Bright and Morning Story," a short story by Richard Wright, the protagonist discovers in sorrow songs the bitter disappointment of Christianity. She trades in her commitments to God for a gun, and embraces the promise of collectivity through Communist revolution. Similarly, in Herman Melville's Benito Cereno, the "wailing sorrows of the negresses" are emblematic of all that the liberal white hero, Captain Delano, misrecognizes aboard the San Dominick. Instead, they serve as one among many intricate modes of communication that uphold the facade of white control following a slave revolt. I found that students embraced this unique channel into the layered historical contexts that African-American literature engages and subverts. 


As part of the introduction to the course, I took the class to the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library for a presentation given by an archivist. Here, students were introduced to archival research and its significance for the study of African-American literature. As I stated in my teaching philosophy, having students engage with the community and community resources often inspires them to energetically explore new topics with a deep investment in its stakes. Students were introduced to the materiality of texts, seeing and touching rare slave narratives, African-American newspapers, and bills of sale for slaves (in Michigan!) in their tattered fragility. Students were utterly blown away by the rupture between their assumptions about scholarly work in African-American literature and its reality in the field, as well as the intellectual excitement that these gaps and absences present to the scholar.

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Course Description


Throughout this course, students will be moving between old books and new, questioning how it is that W.E.B. DuBois's concept of "double-consciousness" has been illuminated by innovate aesthetic practices over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. Each unit pairs a text from the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century with a contemporary novel, in order to develop a trajectory of how literature registers our evolving relationship with race, trauma, and motherhood through innovative aesthetic practices.



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