ENGL628C - Readings in African American Literature

A fugitive slave mails himself to Philadelphia, PA, and celebrates with a moving performance of song upon arrival. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. uses his body to protest racial segregation. Rick Ross, Diddy, 2 Chainz, and a cadre of other black rappers join forces to record “Don’t Shoot”—a prayer song in rap that protests the shooting of Mike Brown. In this course, we will explore the connective tissues that link these seemingly disparate modalities of black performance. We will pay particular attention to the aesthetic, social, and political possibilities that emerge in and through such acts of staging black bodies. How, we will ask, have orality and embodied performance been central to the production of black art, and what has been the role of writing in representing these acts? How have these performances both fractured and sustained normative conceptions of race, gender, and sexuality? What roles do audiences and spectators play in the production of black performance? These questions, among others, will anchor our conversations, as we read and analyze various “sites” of performance—from slave narratives, minstrelsy, and Broadway plays to hip hop and civil rights protests. In this vein, we will put black artists such as Frederick Douglass, Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, and Amiri Baraka in the company of Billie Holiday, Gil Scott-Heron, Biggie Smalls, and Beyoncé. We will pair these with critical readings from Daphne A. Brooks, E. Patrick Johnson, Eric Lott, Hortense Spillers, Sylvia Wynter, Richard Schechner, Diana Taylor, Peggy Phelan, Joseph Roach, Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin, among others. The primary goals of our course, then, will be to enhance students’ critical facility with theories and methodologies at the core of performance studies, and to provide a broader understanding of black literary and cultural production.