‘New’ Black Aesthetics

 As historically disenfranchised people of color have been collectively occupied with attaining recognition as citizens and with determining how to exercise fully the rights indicated by this citizenship, they have been represented (by others and by themselves) politically, socially, and artistically in ways that work both within and against the boundaries of Americanness. From slave narratives to hip_hop tracks, many otherwise race-specific expressions of marginal resistance in the United States have been appropriated to the extent that they have become in some ways synonymous with the conventions of mainstream Americana. In this course we will explore the ways that the notion of blackness has been and continues to be constructed, commodified, challenged, and reconceptualized in literature and in other contemporary media. We will think through various approaches to the interpretation and critique of culture, taking particular interest in those expressive modes that have been called “popular” and that have not been generally classified as “black.” And in this context we will begin to reevaluate exactly what these descriptors mean. With this project in mind, our class meetings will be arranged thematically, crossing disciplines to incorporate conversations about books, films, and music in which this discussion happens and about genres of text, such as speculative fiction and punk, with which African Americans have not been typically associated in the public imagination. We will examine works that exhibit aesthetic tendencies and discursive styles that might be deemed “new” or “alternative” (perhaps even radical and interventionist) to the extent that black people have not been heavily represented as producers or subjects—even as we locate certain cultural continua that would contradict this assumption. Among our consistent talking points will be ideas of cultural property and authenticity, feminism and the performance of masculinity, cosmopolitanism and globalization, and public versus private text. Considering that identity and community are inevitably mediated through conceptions of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality, we will work to think more critically about the ways that black cultural production can be read.

Hashtag Africa: Speculative Fictions of the #Black Diaspora

What happens when black bodies are projected and propelled across time, across space, and across the so-called digital divide? How are contemporary boundaries of margin and center troubled by the advent of newer technologies? In this course we will discuss what is conventionally and conveniently called “science fiction,” and we will explore the relative limitations of this nomenclature as black writers, artists, and intellectuals conceptualize radical models of representation through progressive approaches to genre and form, designing what has been sited as “afrofuturism.” Considering that agency and subjectivity are inevitably mediated through a shifting conjunction of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality, it is crucial that we calculate the extent to which what we understand to be reality is informed by ruptures in and modifications of world media. (So an important point of interest becomes, which world are we imagining actually? How many worlds are there anyway?) During this term we will discuss contemporary uses of a range of speculative text rooted in what was once known as the African diaspora, including but not limited to novels by Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany, films by Sun Ra and Haile Gerima, and music by the Weeknd and MF DOOM. We will think through the ways in which blackness in particular and race in general are constructed and reconfigured as cultural workers theorize new modes of critical resistance. With attention to sound and sounding, plus space and spatiality, we will investigate the ways in which alternative histories and presents are imagined through the production of possible futures.

  

Black Life Onscreen: Situating African American Cinema

What is a black film? What is its function? In this course we will examine films made by and/or about black Americans over the last one hundred years as we attempt to determine the potential applications of style, narrative trope, and production method that could distinguish these works as a specifically marked and marketed body of cinema. As we approach these films, we will designate them as a site for critique of the ways in which blackness and Americanness are represented in the public imagination. We will address some of the challenges and apparent disparities that float between image culture and economic culture, between aesthetic culture and political culture, as black American writers, directors, and actors variously render resistance to and acquiescence to sometimes restrictive conventions of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality. Moving from D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation through to Jordan Peele’s Get Out, we will conduct a mostly chronological survey of feature-length films and incorporate a range of critical work that directly and indirectly speaks to the central texts. Through a series of conversations and essay projects we will theorize black film and investigate whether this designation is useful to certain efforts. We will sound out some ideas about what African American cinema indicates with regard to the agency of production and representation for otherwise marginalized people. And we will consider the increasing significance of this discussion in an era of newer technologies and contemporary policy shifts that inform the modes through which varied blacknesses are constructed and commodified on a very big screen.

 

The Black 90s: Archiving the Love Jones Generation

The ten-year timeline pressing hard against 2000 is a site of deep nostalgia and crucial speculation, a period of great anticipation troubled by occasional distress, a moment marked by fond reflection upon a century almost past coupled with an almost visceral premillennial tension. The decade is distinguished by a drive to codify culture, to establish definitions and parameters regarding signage, difference, authenticity, and authority of representation. Alongside or underneath the so-called culture wars of the mainstream academy and the many presumptions of the always-already, black life in and of the 1990s is indicated in the rise of the stylized public intellectual; in a more prominent documentation of black interiority, black image, black sound; and in a refined critique of Americanness and of blackness itself. Slipping toward the popular, this framing is especially generative and challenging in terms of ideas about the relationship of culture to nation, of body to state—with an emphasis on the resonant advent of newer information technologies. During the first section of this seminar, meetings will alternate between the discussion of written material—critical and literary—and the application of this material to the observation of objects—primarily visual and sonic—relevant to what this particular grid of time does or what we think that it is possibly supposed to make us do. The latter section of the course will be devoted to the design of an interactive, intersectional digital archive of the Black 90s. And perhaps, amid the negotiation of sociohistorical proximities of cultural artifacts to panic, we will even speak of love.

 

KANYE VERSUS EVERYBODY: Black Poetry and Poetics from Hughes to Hip_Hop

Kanye West has been talking your head off. Over the past several years especially, the variously prolific rapper has been waxing poetic, making a series of proclamations and postulations regarding aspects of his own aesthetic genius and the plight of the black creative mind today—all while tussling with paparazzi (literally and figuratively) in an effort to be accurately understood. The designer and defender of his own celebrity, Kanye expresses an intellectual stance and an extreme sense of agency that arguably exemplify the critical perspective of our latest generation of public thinkers. But where does this conversation about cultural production and artistic temperament actually begin? And where is the discourse heading? In this course we are jumping off from a dandy Harlem Renaissance up through a dashikied Black Arts Movement on into the fashionably contested lyricism of this current hip_hop era, focusing most immediately on 20th- and 21st-century African American verse. We will investigate the continuous development of African American poetry and poetics—the uses of language and literature to represent blackness and Americanness in particular—observing shifting meanings in and of the text with important considerations of race, class, gender, and sexuality. And we will return consistently to Kanye West—via music, images, and interviews—as a connective character study linking the popular to the academic, the “traditional” to the newer performative, the sometimes celebrated to the occasionally despised. Examining form and function, content and context, we will analyze these articulations with emphasis on the work of poets who are writing right now.

 

Is Hip_Hop Useful?

Once regarded as a race-specific, class-specific expression of marginal resistance in the United States, hip_hop has since been appropriated and commodified to the extent that it has become in many aspects consistent with the conventions of mainstream Americana. In this course we will examine the history, development, and representation of hip_hop culture, discussing each of its constitutive, interdependent elements as well as their many derivatives. Class sessions will be arranged according to specific themes pertaining to such issues as community construction and constructive regionalism, black cultural production and conceptions of authenticity, celebrity and the valuation of mortality, mediated sexualities and the performance of masculinity, nationalized aesthetics and technologies of globalization, and alternative intellectualism in the academy. Assuming some prior knowledge of the subject, we will spend a good deal of time unpacking some of the most recent scholarship and popular work concerning hip_hop and its practice, concerning the public and private lives of the text. As we progress in our approach to contemporary hip_hop discourse, we will situate our inquiry around hip_hop’s arguable utility as entertainment, as art, as social commentary, and–perhaps most tentatively–as a viable mode of political activism. This advanced discussion course has extensive reading and writing requirements, including the completion of a substantial, potentially publishable critical essay.

Octavia Butler Now! Reading Race, Gender, and Critical Futures

Octavia Butler might be called the patron saint of the black speculative project (or of so-called Afrofuturism) with its intersectional approach to cultural diaspora, access technology, and spatiotemporal concerns. Her work has become in recent years prolifically referenced in the discourse of racecraft, feminist criticism, and queer studies. Butler operates in some senses as metacritic, writing herself into a framework (or several often mutually oppositional frameworks) not designed with her in mind, transforming the mechanism while intimately illustrating and explicating our own alienness. In this single-author seminar we will examine Butler’s writing along with a cache other relevant material, tracing its continuity of themes and discerning its function in various sociopolitical contexts. And, as a blatantly speculative exercise, we will be reading these novels with a hard parallel to a selection of African American literary theory—arguably classical, possibly conventional—to figure out whether and in which ways it works, this placement of genre fiction against critical studies from beside its time. Further, we will theorize ways in which Butler’s text might be made applicable to and be inserted into our contemporary thinking about the representation of blackness, womanness, and Americanness at the turn of the millennium.

  

James Baldwin Unplugged

 James Baldwin is among the most prolific and influential American writers of the 20th century. Recently, his ideas and his likeness have been trending, proving stunningly resonant and possibly useful in the 21st. A novelist, essayist, playwright, and poet, Baldwin works across genres as a public thinker—a catalyst, perhaps—operating at often violent intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality, witnessing at the overlap, the bleedout of social crisis in the United States. In this single-author seminar we will examine Baldwin’s writing along with a cache of pertinent screen material, tracking its continuity of themes and discerning its function in varied cultural contexts—with an eye toward our current political scene. As a blatantly speculative exercise, we will read these items with a hard parallel to a selection of African American literary theory to determine whether and how it works, this placement of groundlevel, predigital prose against critical studies from outside its time. And we will detail ways in which Baldwin’s analog might be unplugged spatiotemporally and retrofitted into contemporary discourse about the representation of blackness and Americanness at the turn of the millennium.

Reconstructing the Harlem Renaissance

 In 1925, Alain Locke described the emergence of a generation of black artists and intellectuals who would represent the marginalized “folk” in the United States and who would serve as a bridge into the possibility of equitable American citizenship. This “New Negro” was characterized as a cultural vanguard responsible for the leadership not only of the African American community but also of oppressed people of color across the planet. In this seminar we will approach the Harlem Renaissance as a nexus of black cosmopolitanism beginning with an analysis of some of its central literary texts and crossing media to examine some of the visual and popular work of the creative period. While unpacking the prose and poetry of Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, Claude McKay, and other integral figures, we will trace the conceptualization of Harlem itself as a virtual “race capital,” and we will deal with several more contemporary representations of the aesthetic movement, its political ramifications, and its primary operative space. Considering recent critical disputes about the relative success or failure of this “Harlem Renaissance,” we will explore the limitations of this nomenclature. Through a series of readings, discussions, and writing assignments we will address the recurring themes of the movement with a particular focus on transnational mobility and transcultural exchange, occasionally emphasizing globalist, Southernist, and global Southernist perspectives. We will investigate the location of black cultural production as it is simultaneously equated with and placed in opposition to conventional notions of Americanness–-a context in which the New Negro is realized as both producer and product, commodifier and commodified body.

 

Rethinking Black Nationalism

The idea of black nationalism concerns a marginalized people’s attempt to organize themselves as a consolidated community of resistance. Often tied to pan-Africanism, this model of cultural identity is couched in a history of struggle against slavery and imperialist subjugation. In this course we will critically investigate the ways in which people of African descent have chosen to represent themselves politically, socially, and artistically in opposition to the conventions of mainline culture, to varying degrees of success. From 19th-century slave narratives to 21st-century hip_hop compositions (and with a special emphasis on the Black Power era in the United States), we will consider several texts that exemplify the discourse around various movements for collective recognition and self-determination. And we will critique the manner in which the products of this intellectual work have been appropriated and commodified in popular text, sometimes by the nationalist organizers themselves. Approaching this subject more conceptually than chronologically, crossing disciplines and media, we will discuss the situation of African American cultural production in a global context. Considering that cultural identity and the representation of group consciousness are inevitably mediated through interrelated conceptions of race, class, gender, and sexuality, we will work to reason more critically about issues concerning a continuum of black nationalist thought.

American Playlist: Black Writing and Sound

 More than a nationalist enterprise, America is an aesthetic mode, a lifestyle brand the dream of which has provided fodder for centuries of shiny representation and thirsty yearning. Meanwhile, historically disregarded and disenfranchised communities—other othered Americans—have been collectively occupied with attaining recognition as citizens and with determining how to exercise fully the rights indicated by this citizenship. They have been depicted (by themselves and by observers) politically, socially, and artistically in ways that work both within and against the conventions of standard-issue Americana. Together we are obsessed with this particular sound and sounding—these barely audible voices, that utterance of desire and difference. In this course we will explore the ways in which notions of Americanness have been and continue to be constructed, commodified, challenged, and reconceptualized in contemporary text across mediums. Emphasizing a selection of longer American prose, we will think through various approaches to the interpretation and critique of culture. We press play into the work of several authors and artists less traditionally associated with grander public imaginings of the American. And in this context we will begin to reevaluate exactly what this descriptor means. Among our consistent talking points will be ideas of cultural property and authenticity, feminism and the performance of masculinity, cosmopolitanism and globalization, and public versus private text. Considering that identity and community are inevitably mediated through conceptions of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality, we will think intersectionally about the ways in which Americanness and American cultural production can be read and heard.

 

Fresh African Prose

What constitutes so-called world literature in this moment of increased mobility and heightened access to erstwhile disparate sites of information production and exchange? In this course section we will focus our attention on a selection of novels concerning Africans and African travelers to the would-be West, written in the past decade. We will examine these contemporary texts for signs of cosmopolitan life and sift through arguments regarding departures and returns; desire and regret; memory and speculation; and technology and popular culture, along with critical considerations of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality. We will observe the shifting meaning, investigating a series of representations of Africanness (and by extension Americanness) with the idea of complicating our own understanding of the continent as a conceptual launch pad.

 

Black Around 1950

1950-something is not a fixed proposition. It is not a hard and fast date of action but rather an indicator of something that may have in many ways never occurred at all. Hovering there—in the uneventful wake of the Harlem Renaissance, in nervous anticipation of the Black Arts Movement—is an unnamed section of African American cultural production that has been routinely underdiscussed. In this introduction to literary studies we will endeavor to fill in the gap where there is none by approaching a selection of important prose developed in the middle of the twentieth century. With critical considerations of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality and with an emphasis on close reading, we will investigate the character of these presumably quieter decades for evidence of meaning. We will speculate upon the invisible, the ghostly, the liminal—perhaps even the ordinary. And finally, when we have finished with sensational things, we will venture a series of arguments about what is actually happening.