Occasionally, I post syllabi ideas here on the blog. Today, I want to share a syllabus I have been thinking about recently entitled “African American Literature and the American South.” The South, as a geographic and imaginary space, looms large in the works of not just African American authors but in writers of all ethnic backgrounds from the United States. Maryemma Graham discusses the South’s continual pull in this manner:

The South has been reconfigured in important ways in the contemporary African American novel. In part because of the tragicomic relationship of African Americans to the South and the oppositional nature of southern politics and history, the South has appealed to every generation of American writers. The South of slavery and freedom, of moonlight and magnolias, has a complexity that southern African American novelists are wont to explain.

The syllabus below does not present a comprehensive list of texts, both primary and critical, that one could use in a course of this nature. Rather, it presents a list of works that can be covered, with some efficiency, in about an eight week period. If you want to take a longer look, I would suggest adding texts such as

Frank Yerby The Foxes of Harrow
Alice Walker Meridian
Attica Locke The Cutting Season
Ernest J. Gaines The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
Edward P. Jones The Known World
Solomon Northup Twelve Years a Slave
James Baldwin Blues for Mister Charlie
Olympia Vernon A Killing in this Town
Jesmyn Ward Salvage the Bones
Kiese Laymon Long Division
Arna Bontemps God Sends Sunday
Richard Wright Uncle Tom’s Children
Anne Moody Coming of Age in Mississippi
Harriet Jacobs Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Frederick Douglass Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Genaro Kỳ Lý Smith’s The Land Baron’s Sun: The Story of Lý Loc and His Seven Wives (2014)

Still, this list is in no ways exhaustive. What texts would you add to this syllabus? As usual, let me know in the comments below.

Course Description:

The American South looms large in the minds of Americans throughout the United States. It has served, and continues to serve, in some ways, as the repository for the nation’s sins, namely the “peculiar institution” of slavery, and as the space where culture and imagination cease to flourish. “African American Literature and The American South” will explore the ways that African American authors, both those from the South, and those who write about the South, imagine and approach the region in their writing. The Southern context will allow us to cover a broad swath of African American literature from nineteenth century authors such as Alice Dunbar Nelson and Charles Chesnutt to contemporary authors such as T. Geronimo Smith and Octavia Butler while highlighting the transnational threads that appear in these works and stretch not just to Europe but to the Caribbean and Africa as well. While the above authors hail from the South, the course would also look at the ways that writers such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Baldwin, and William Melvin Kelley construct and think about the South as a space. In this manner, you will get a broad image of the ways that African American authors approach the South in their writing to comment on the nation as a whole, thus creating a perception of America through a specific region.

Critical Texts

Byerman, Keith. “Performing Race: Mixed-Race Characters in the Novels of Charles Chesnutt.” Passing in the works of Charles W. Chesnutt. Edited by Susan Prothro Wright and Ernestine Pickens Glass. University of Mississippi Press, 2010. pp. 84-92.

Davis, Thadious M. “Introduction.” Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, and Literature. University of North Carolina Press, 2011. pp. 1-22.

Gebhard, C. “Masculinity, Criminality, and Race: Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s Creole Boy Stories.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, vol. 33 no. 2, 2016, pp. 336-360.

Harris, Trudier. “The Irresistible Appeal of Slavery: Fear of Losing the Self in Octavie E. Butler’s Kindred (1979).” The Scary Mason-Dixon Line: African American Writers and the South. Louisiana State University Press, 2009. pp.62-80.

Jarrett, Gene Andrew. “The Race Problem was Not a Theme for Me.” Deans and Truants: Race and Realism in African American Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007, 143-166.

Lowe, John Wharton. “A Proper Order of Attention, McKay and Hurston Honor the Hardy Peasant.” Calypso Magnolia: The Crosscurrents of Caribbean and Southern Literature. University of North Carolina Press, 2016. pp. 198-248.

Patell, Shireen R. K. “‘We the People,’ Who? James Baldwin and the Traumatic Constitution of These United States.” Comparative Literature Studies, vol. 48, no. 3, Sept. 2011, pp. 356-387.

Primary Texts

Paul Laurence Dunbar “Nelse Hatton’s Vengeance” (1898), “The Tragedy at Three Forks” (1899), and “The Lynching of Jube Benson” (1904)
Alice Dunbar-Nelson “A Carnival Jangle,” “Little Miss Sophie,” and “Titee” (1895)
Charles Chesnutt Paul Marchand, F.M.C. (1920s)
Claude McKay Banana Bottom (1933)
Zora Neale Hurston Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
Frank Yerby “White Magnolias” (1944) and “Health Card” (1944)
James Baldwin “Going to Meet the Man” (1965)
William Melvin Kelley A Different Drummer (1962)
T. Geronimo Johnson Welcome to Braggsville (2015)
Octavia Butler Kindred Graphic novel adaptation by Damion Duffy and John Jennings (2017)

3 Comments on ““African American Literature and the American South” Syllabus

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