English, 2013 curriculum - Free topic 3: What Was/Is African American Literature

Course content

Kenneth Warren’s book What Was African American Literature? (2011) has received considerable attention—and no little criticism--for proposing not only that “African American literature” emerged mostly in response to the structures and ideology of U.S. racism, but also that the term applies only to a particular historical period and no longer holds today. In this course, we will use Warren’s argument as a starting point for a discussion of the formation, revision, desegregation, diversification, and possible disintegration of “African American literature.” We will read a range of canonical and non-canonical literary texts from the early twentieth century to the present. Course themes will include:

  • The legacies of slavery in definitions of African American literature, from the slave narrative to the “neo-slave narrative”
  • Black writers’ response to racism, from “racial uplift” narratives to calls for revolutionary resistance
  • The role of the Great Migration, especially from the rural South to the urban North, in reshaping African American experience and African American literature
  • Categorization and periodization of African American literature: i.e., the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement, African American women’s writing
  • The role and representation of mixed racial and biracial identity in African American life and literature, from tropes of the “tragic mulatto” to more recent narratives in the “age of Obama”
  • How ideas of transnationalism, diaspora, Pan-Africanism, and the Black Atlantic have challenged “African American exceptionalism” (Paul Gilroy) and complicated definitions of “African American literature” as confined within the U.S. nation state
  • How questions of genre (fiction, short stories, slave and neo-slave narratives, autobiographies, poetry, plays, essays, experimental writing) and publication form have shaped definitions of African American literature


Recent debates over “post-racial” or “post-black” identity, and how it may or may not relate to debates over the end of “African American literature”

Classes, with particular emphasis on reading primary and secondary texts, oral discussion and developing proficiency in English.

Provisional reading list (NB: this is only a sample list of predominantly primary texts, and so subject to change/confirmation):

  • Kenneth Warren, What Was African American Literature? (2011)
  • James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912)
  • George Schuyler, Black No More (1931)
  • Richard Wright, Black Boy (1945)
  • Zora Neale Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee (1948)
  • James Baldwin, Another Country (1961)
  • Leroi Jones, Dutchman/The Slave (1964)
  • Alice Walker, Meridian (1976)
  • Toni Morrison, Tar Baby (1980)
  • Heidi Durrow, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (2011) (Algonquin Books)
  • Yaa Ngyasi, Homegoing (2016)

What Was/Is African American Literature will be taught in weeks 44-50, four hours/week.

7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Criteria for exam assessment


  • Category
  • Hours
  • Class Instruction
  • 28
  • Preparation
  • 176,75
  • English
  • 204,75