ENGL 6130: Reading Race in American Culture

Section Description:

Students will examine Anglo-American and African American cultural texts from antebellum America to the historic election of President Obama in order to understand better the social constructions of race in American society. In 1903, W.E.B. DuBois wrote that the problem of the twentieth century in the United States would be race, or as he put it, “the color line.” This metaphor of linearity suggests the demarcating nature of race as constructed, employed, interpreted, delineated and deployed historically in the US. We will be particularly interested in how this symbiotic binary of black and white subverts, signifies, symbolizes, represents, and reifies social and cultural aspirations, interests and conflicts as depicted in the texts. Constructions of race serve many social and cultural purposes, and how interpretive grids of race are constructed is as important to understand as is the constructions of race. Our texts will include literary texts as well as cultural texts such as music, visual art, journalistic texts, among others. In the literary texts, we will examine how American writers on both sides of the historic color line construct, represent and interpret race, following an arc that takes us, in Anglo-American literature, from the seemingly definitive authority of race in The Scarlet Letter and the lack thereof in Light in August to the metaphors of race in The Exorcist and the hybridity of race in The Human Stain. In African American texts, from Douglass’s Narrative to Morrison’s A Mercy, we will analyze movements from physical bondage to juridical bondage and the seemingly invisible bondages of post integration, especially at the intersections of race, gender, class, sexuality and culture. Our primary tool of inquiry will be critical race theory (CRT), augmented by theories of Black feminist theories, especially intersectionality, and performance studies.