Monday, January 1, 2018


*Photo: Westchester University

Welcome to ENGL 2650, African American Literature! I am very excited about sharing the next several weeks with you all. This semester is shaping up to be an informative and enriching one, and I have a lot to share with you, so let's get started.

First, allow me to introduce myself. I am Dr. Julie Lester, and I am an assistant professor of English here at Southwest. I have been teaching here for six years, and before that, I earned my doctorate in African American Literature from the University of Memphis. 

Why did I choose this subject? I was inspired by several of my college professors to read and study the work of Zora Neale Hurston (whom you will hear a lot about this course), and to read her most acclaimed novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Immediately I was drawn to her as a kindred: a familiar, and I was struck with the notion that we are all very much alike--regardless of a 'little pigmentation' (1). For me, Hurston's work underscored the importance of experience both as a woman and as a southerner, and in so doing, diminished the importance of race as a subjugating category of identity. In other words, the similarities that draw us together as human beings far outweigh and differences tied to race.

Additionally, my dedication to the study of African American literature has revealed a lot of answers about my own upbringing, about the history of the South, and how that history has helped to shape who we are and where we are going. 

I like to structure my course as an investigation of how African American literature has evolved from its moorings in folk culture. It is a unique evolution because it reflects a unique and troubled history; however, as one reviews the development of an African American Literary tradition, one discovers the resilience, strength, and determination of a people who fought against a common oppressor and lived to tell the tale. It is a literature of protest, and a literature of victory.

We will begin, then, with a look at the Vernacular Tradition: a tradition of folk customs that have been handed down from one generation to the next, and whose presence continues to be influential today. The folk customs referred to as part of the Vernacular Tradition include stories, jokes, cautionary tales, fables, sermons, and songs. From this tradition we locate the Trickster--the protagonist of many African American Tales. The Trickster is cast here as the wily slave who tricks his master by exploiting the master's greed. In the Trickster we observe what Dr. Henry Louis Gates refers to as 'signifying': a performance of submission that is used to mask the ulterior motive of the slave. It is a form of resistance and rebellion as much as it is a mode of survival. 

Later we will observe how the Vernacular Tradition occurs in later literary forms, like the Slave Narrative. Here non-literary forms are transformed into the literary, as the slave narrator becomes the author/storyteller, and his tale becomes the novel. By necessity, the African American slave must adopt western modes of self-expression and speak the self into existence. From this point forward, the African American writer faces new forms of self-expression while battling the oppressive forces and obstacles that seek to intervene and silence him. 

By the time the 20th Century arrives, we will see the emergence of the African American philosopher and ideologue. Alongside the poet, writer, and musician of the Harlem Renaissance, individuals such as W.E.B. Dubois, Alain Locke, James Weldon Johnson, and Marcus Garvey will seek to redefine the role of the African American artist as well as to reexamine the question of what it means to be both black and an American citizen in the United States. Questions would be raised about Pan-Africanism and what it meant to be a member of a diaspora. Further, these voices will call for a unifying relationship with all people of color whose histories bespeak oppression. 

Though our time together is quite short (and at times will seem very rushed) my hope is that you step away from this course with a new understanding of African American Literature--and culture. Perhaps you will begin to make new cultural connections you'd never considered before; or perhaps you will ask questions about history that you had not pondered before this semester. Above all, I hope you learn new and exciting things--but it will require your diligence and perseverance, so allow the figures we will consider to inspire you as they have inspired me.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Summer Reading List for Africana Literature

The following is a sampling of many of my favorite Africana authors, novels, and theoretical works. This list of course, is by no means comprehensive, as the variety of compelling works available by writers of the African diaspora is very broad and dynamic. However, the following are among the most noteworthy and influential.

The Slave Narrative/Reconstruction
Clotel; Or The President's Daughter by William Wells Brown
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember edited by James Mellon
When I Was a Slave, edited by Norman R. Yetman
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or My Bondage and My Freedom
Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington
Narrative of Sojourner Truth
Women's Slave Narratives by Annie L. Burton, et al.
12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from The Civil War to WWII by Douglas A. Blackmon
A Bondwoman's Narrative by Hannah Crafts, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans From Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington

The Harlem Renaissance
By Zora Neale Hurston:
Dust Tracks on a Road
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Seraph on the Sewanee 
Jonah's Gourd Vine
Moses, Man of the Mountain
The Black Rose: The Dramatic Story of Madam C.J. Walker, America's First Black Female Millionaire by Tananarive Due
The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois
Quicksand and Passing by Nella Larsen
Cane by Jean Toomer
Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by J.W. Johnson
Gods Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse by J.W. Johnson
There is Confusion by Jessie Fauset
The Big Sea by Langston Hughes
Banana Boat by Claude McKay

Modernists/The Chicago School
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Black Boy ( American Hunger ) by Richard Wright
Native Son by Richard Wright
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

By James Baldwin:
Giovanni's Room
Go Tell it on the Mountain

Universal Apartheid/Pan-Africanism
Long Walk to Freedom: With Connections by Nelson Mandela
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
South Africa: The Rise and Fall of Apartheid by Nancy L. Clark and William H. Worger
Kaffir Boy: An Autobiography--The True Story of a Black Youth's Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa by Mark Mathabane

The Civil Rights Movement
Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
Free At Last: A History of the Civil Rights Movement and Those Who Died in the Struggle by Sara Bullard, Julian Bond
A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School by Carlotta Walls Lanier, Lisa Frazier Page
Strength to Love by Martin Luther King, Jr.
A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Black Power Movement
Women, Race, and Class by Angela Davis
Women, Culture and Politics by Angela Davis

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley/Malcolm X
Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed 
Yellow Back Radio Broke-down by Ishmael Reed
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde
Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton by Bobby Seale
Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton

Black Women's Renaissance Writers
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Letter to my Daughter by Maya Angelou

By Alice Walker
In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens
The Third Life of Grange Copeland
The Temple of My Familiar
The Color Purple

By Toni Morrison:
The Bluest Eye
Song of Solomon

Mama Day by Gloria Naylor
The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor
The Salt Eaters by Toni Cade Bambara
Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara

Contemporary African American Women's Fiction and Theory
Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo by Ntozake Shange
Baby of the Family by Tina McElroy Ansa
The Hand I Fan With by Tina McElroy Ansa
Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment by Patricia Hill Collins
Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America by Melissa V. Harris-Perry
The Coldest Winter Ever by Sistah Soulja
Push by Sapphire
Corregidora by Gayle Jones
Daughters of the Dust by Julie Dash

Afro-Futurism, Fantasy and Science Fiction:
Blood Colony by Tananarive Due
Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson
So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy ed. Uppinder Mehan and Samuel R. Delany
Voodoo Dreams: A Novel of Marie Laveau by Jewell Parker Rhodes

By Octavia Butler:
Wild Seed
Parable of the Sower
Parable of the Talents
The Ancestors (Collection) Brandon Massey, Tananarive Due, L.A. Banks
Louisiana by Erna Brodber
Immortal by Valjeanne Jeffers

Re-Visioning History in the Contemporary Age:
Dessa Rose by Sherley Anne Williams
Kindred by Octavia Butler
Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson
Jubilee by Margaret Walker

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Alice Walker: Reaping the Ancestor's Garden

"Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender." (Alice Walker)
Alice Walker, (born 1944), the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for her novel, The Color Purple. The author of multiple novels, volumes of poetry, collections of short stories, children's books, and essays, she is perhaps best known for the landmark novel that focuses on Celie, a disaffected black woman from the rural South who has been deliberately disconnected from her children.

Our text points out that Walker was interviewed in 1973 by scholar Mary Helen Washington, in which the author professed a commitment to portraying the lives of black women in her novels. Gates, et al. observe that Walker "described the three types of black women characters she felt were missing from much of the literature of the United States. The first were those who were exploited both physically and emotionally, whose lives were narrow and confining, and who were driven sometimes to madness, such as Margaret and Mem Copeland in Walker's first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland. The second were those who were victims not so much of physical violence as of psychic violence, women who are alienated from their own culture. The third type of black woman character, represented most effectively by Celie and Shug in The Color Purple, are those African American women who, despite the oppression they suffer, achieve some wholeness and create spaces for other oppressed communities" (Gates, et al 2425). 

Raised in Eatonton, Georgia, Alice Walker left home to study first at Spelman College (HBC), and at Sarah Lawrence in upstate New York. During these years her career as a writer began to flourish, fueled by the hardships and setbacks she experienced early in her life. She became involved in the Civil Rights Movement and notably interrogated the Black Nationalist Movement for its emphasis on "Black Manhood," and its virtual negligence of the plight of African American women (2426). An ideologue, Walker outlined her notion of "Womanism," which she explained originated in the African American folk term "womanish," and "honors a long tradition of strength among black women" (2426). Womanism, for Walker, was a term that encompassed the experience of black women and a pervasive sense of self and communal belonging.

*From In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens,

Walker observed early in her career an impulse to explore the artistry of black women--not simply that of Phyllis Wheatley and Zora Neale Hurston--writers whom she identifies as "foremothers"; but the artistry of average black women, past and present. As we consider the excerpt from "In Search of Our Mother's Gardens," in what ways does the author pay homage to the unknown, unseen foremothers of the past?