The photo above is of the head of Canyon de Chelly by Timothy O’Sullivan. 

For my dissertation, I explored the connections between the ways that African American, Native American, and white women authors used Scottish Enlightenment rhetoric to argue for their positions within the body politic of the United States. One of the key aspects that arose from the dissertation was the ways that African American and Native American activists were joined together in their rhetoric. This joining countered white views of African Americans and Native Americans and provided a space for collaboration between the two groups. However, this linkage started to fade during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Currently, I have been thinking about some of the texts I used for my dissertation in relation to the Western or frontier genre. This has led me to think about the following syllabus.

Note: the list of texts at the bottom of this post are works I received via social media from others.

Course Description

In “The American Dream and the American Negro,” James Baldwin comments on watching Westerns staring Gary Cooper. Baldwin writes, “It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.” Westerns have a long tradition in the United States, even tracing back to the frontier narratives of James Fenimore Cooper and captivity narratives such as those written by Mary Rowlandson. John Hector St. John de Crèvecœur in his Letters from an American Farmer (1782) concludes with “Distresses of a Frontier Man” where Farmer James talks about wanting to settle with his family on the frontier to escape modernization. He speaks of wanting to learn from Native Americans, but he also speaks about wanting to “civilize” them and about his fears of his family turning into “savages.” This construction places Native Americans in opposition to “civilized” European colonizers.

African American authors of this period such as John Marrant, Albery Allson Whitman, and Pauline Hopkins challenged whites’ views of Native Americans and African Americans by presenting texts that show whites, not Native Americans and African Americans, as savage and uncivilized. Later, during the twentieth century, authors such as Frank Yerby, Percival Everett, Ishmael Reed and others deployed the tropes of the Western genre to challenge white mythology. As Michael K. Johnson writes, when discussing eighteenth and nineteenth century texts, these authors present double-voiced texts that “play on white mythology, [and serve as] a recuperation of black history and literary or artistic tradition.”

Eric Gardner, in Unexpected Places: Relocating Nineteenth-Century African American Literature (2009), comments on the lack of literary criticism about the West and African American literature: “The first step in this process may simply be recognizing that there was a black literary West, one that reached back well into the nineteenth century, and one that most scholars have ignored.” By tracing the Black literary West to the latter part of the eighteenth century, this course will explore how African American authors have engaged with the West since that point and to the present. “African American Literature and the Black West” will explore the ways that authors have used the West as both a physical and imagined space to challenge white mythologies about race.

Primary Texts

  • John Marrant. A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant (1785)
  • Albery Allson Whitman. Not a Man, and Yet a Man (1887)
  • Paul Laurence Dunbar. The Love of Landry (1900)
  • Pauline Hopkins. Winona, a Tale of Negro Life in the South and Southwest (1902-1903)
  • Jennie Carter. Jennie Carter: A Black Journalist of the Early West. Edited by Eric Gardner.
  • Frank Yerby. The Treasure of Pleasant Valley (1955)
  • Ishmael Reed. Yellow Back Radio Down (1966)
  • Percival Everett. God’s Country (1994)

Secondary Sources

  • Selections from Michael K. Johnson Black Masculinity and the Frontier Myth in American Literature (2002)
  • Selections from Michael K. Johnson Hoo-Doo Cowboys and Bronze Buckaroos: Conceptions of the African Aemrican West (2014)
  • “Eric Gardner. “The Black West: Northern California and Beyond.”
    Unexpected Places: Relocating Nineteenth-Century African American Literature (2009). pp. 92-132
  • Blake Allmendinger. “Introduction.” Imagining the African American West (2005). pp. xi-xix
  • Frederick Jackson Turner The Frontier in American History (1920)
  • Hannah Gourgey. “Poetics of Memory and Marginality: Images of the Native American in African-American Newspapers, 1870-1900 and 1970-1990.” The Black Press: New Literary and Historical Essays (2001). Edited by Todd Vogel. pp. 104-122.  
  • Leland Krauth. “Undoing and Redoing the Western.” Callaloo, vol. 28, no. 2, 2005, pp. 313–327.

“It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.”–James Baldwin


Suggestions from Social Media

This list of suggestions contains literature, film, music, scholarship, and other items. They are in no particular order.

  • Percival Everret’s Half and Inch of Water (Michael A. Elliot)
  • Nat Love The Life and Adventures of Nat Love (Ben Railton)
  • Quintard Taylor In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West 1528-1990 (Keisha Blain)
  • Quintard Taylor African American Women Confront the West 1600-2000 (Keisha Blain)
  • Quintard Taylor El Dorado: African Americans in California. (Keisha Blain)
  • Herb Jeffries’ westerns (Katherine Fusco)
  • Oscar Micheaux Conquest: The Story of Negro Pioneer (Donna Campbell)
  • Oscar Micheaux The Homsteader: A Novel (Donna Campbell)
  • Don Flemons Don Flemons presents Black Cowboys (Adam P. Newman)
Nat “Deadwood Dick” Love

What are your thoughts and suggestions? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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