GENG 260: Survey of African-American Literature

Prof. Bleeg 3 credits

          In the opening line of his poem “Harlem” Langston Hughes asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?” First published in 1950, when segregation was still legal nearly a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation declared all slaves free, this poem reflects the African American struggle for equality in a country where “separate but equal” public facilities were at times violently enforced. In the South, these facilities included public drinking fountains, bathrooms, transportation, schools, places of employment—all were legally segregated. In the North, segregation was illegal, yet blacks met discrimination in the workplace and the housing market, in restaurants and nightclubs, boutiques and department stores. Meanwhile, U.S. citizens and politicians would continue to point to the Declaration of Independence as evidence of our nation’s moral leadership in the world: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The poem’s central question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” reminds readers that for many Americans equality remains a dream.

          In this course, we will examine how various African American writers, from former slave Harriet Jacobs to Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison and beyond, address the contradictions of living in a self-proclaimed free and democratic society with a painful legacy of slavery and segregation. Our readings will proceed more or less chronologically, allowing us to trace the changes in African American literature over two centuries to the present moment when, for the first time in history, the U.S. elected a black president less than forty-five years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed all forms of segregation. Your grandparents and perhaps your parents were alive then and remember what legal segregation was like, and you, too, likely have your own stories related to discrimination. During the semester, there will be opportunities to share those stories as we discuss how the writers we read depict African American lives at various points in history. How do these diverse writers wrestle with questions of individual and communal identity? In terms of subject matter, voice, and style, what choices do they make in creating their poems and stories? This course will serve as an introduction to African American literature and the array of rich aesthetic traditions, including vernacular, folklore, spirituals, blues, and jazz, that inform and enrich not only the literature but the texture of cultures across America.

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