Over the course of the last few years, my work has continually focused on the ways that African American authors confront and engage with whiteness through the use of white characters in predominantly white texts. This started when I began to read Frank Yerby’s work, notably his early “costume novels” like The Foxes of Harrow or The Vixens. As my research expanded to comics, specifically looking at Christopher Priest’s Black Panther run, I began to notice, even in a series filled with Black characters, how Priest used a white narrator as the lens through which the reader encountered T’Challa. I see Priest working with a much longer tradition in African American literature using white characters to engage with whiteness and calling upon white readers to engage with their own whiteness. As such, I’ve been thinking about a syllabus based around Veronica Watson’s term “literature of white estrangement.” The below syllabus is in no way complete, but it is some initial thoughts on how I would organize this course.


African American authors, since the 1800s, have written texts that center primarily around white characters. Robert Fikes, Jr. terms these works “white life novels” and they arose, according to Fikes, amidst “[t]he pressure to conform to majority group tastes and expectations along with the personal desire of the authors to experience complete freedom of expression.” Authors such as Amelia E. Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, William Attaway, Wallace Thurman, and others wrote “white life novels” between the late 1800s to the mid-1900s. These novels continued through the social protest era from the mid-1940s onward with authors such as Zora Neal Hurston, Ann Petry, and Frank Yerby.

In the Souls of White Folks: African American Writers Theorize Whiteness, Veronica Watson theorizes “the literature of white estrangement” as works and materials “that critically [engage] Whiteness as a social construction.” White estrangement literature confronts “the myths and mythologies of Whiteness,” causing readers to come face to face with “the regressive, destructive, and often uncivilized ‘nature’ of Whiteness.” Watson argues that Hurston, Yerby, Charles Chesnutt, and other African American authors engage with the literature of white estrangement because they expose “Whiteness to itself by providing a revealing counternarrative to the myths of Whiteness.”

During this course, we will look at the “literature of white estrangement,” examining how African American authors use texts focused on white characters to expose and confront whiteness and challenge historical narratives and myths. We will look at the ways that the texts engage with whiteness, and we will discuss how authors, as Watson puts it, aim their works at white readers, calling upon them “to engage . . . in the process of reflecting upon their own lives and culture.” Ultimately, we will consider whether or not we can think about these texts within the context of social protest literature.

Primary Texts:

  • Baldwin, James. Giovanni’s Room.
  • Bontemps, Arna. Drums at Dusk.
  • Chesnutt, Charles. Paul Marchand, F.M.C.
  • Dunbar, Paul Laurence. The Love of Landry.
  • Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins. Sowing and Reaping.
  • Hurston, Zora Neale. Seraph and the Suwanee.
  • Johnson, Amelia E. Clarence and Corinne.
  • Kelley, William Melvin. A Different Drummer.
  • Petry, Ann. Country Place.
  • Priest, Christoper et. al. Black Panther Volume 1.
  • Yerby, Frank. Benton’s Row.
  • Yerby, Frank. The Foxes of Harrow.

Secondary Texts:

  • Baldwin, James. “On Being White . . . and Other Lies.”
  • Baldwin, James. “White Man’s Guilt.”
  • DuBois, W.E.B. “The Souls of White Folk.”
  • Fikes, Robert, Jr. “Escaping the Literary Ghetto: African American Authors and White Life Novels, 1946–1994.”
  • Hurston, Zora Neale. “What White Publishers Won’t Print.”
  • Jarrett, Gene Andrew. Selections from African American Literature Beyond Race: An Alternative Reader.
  • Malcolm X. “God’s Judgement of White America.”
  • Roediger, David. Selections from Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White.
  • Tate, Claudia. Selections from Psychoanalysis and Black Novels: Desire and the Protocols or Race.
  • Watson, Veronica. Souls of White Folks: African American Writers Theorize Whiteness.
  • Wilson, William J. (Ethiop). “What Shall We Do with the White People?”
  • Yerby, Frank. “How and Why I write the Costume Novel.”


Discussion Board and Questions:

Each week in preparation for class, you will post an observation or question on the discussion board for us to discuss in the upcoming class. As well, you will respond to two of your classmates’ posts. These posts and responses must critically engage with the text and use secondary sources when necessary.

Short Story or Selection Presentation:

For this assignment, you will choose a short story or selection from Gene Andrew Jarrett’s African American Literature Beyond Race: An Alternative Reader or David Roediger’s Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White. You will read the selection and present it to the class, summarizing it and discussing how it engages with the literature of white estrangement and the various themes we have discussed over the course of the semester. I will provide more information for this assignment later in the semester.

Conference Proposal:

As an emerging scholar, you will present your research at conferences. For this assignment, you will find an upcoming conference and write a conference proposal. Along with writing the proposal, you will write a brief statement discussing why you chose the organization and conference for your paper.

Conference Paper:

Once you write and submit the conference proposal, you will write the conference paper. This paper will be 10–12 pages in length so you can read it in the allotted time at the conference. It must focus on one of the texts we have read during the course, unless otherwise approved, and it must focus on the themes of the literature of white estrangement that we examined over the course of the semester.

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