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Instructor Class Description

Time Schedule:

Sonnet H. Retman
AFRAM 340
Seattle Campus

The Harlem Renaissance: A Literary Study

Highlights Harlem Renaissance - 1912 through mid-1930s - as establishing a role for twentieth-century African-American writer, encompassing literature, politics, and decolonization of the image of Africa, and solidifying integrationist and nationalist schools of thought. Examines images, themes, and characterizations in creating a literary aesthetic simultaneously American and African-American.

Class description

AFRAM 340-Literature of the Harlem Renaissance Revisited

Description: In 1925, philosopher Alain Locke wrote "in Harlem, Negro life is seizing upon its first chances for group expression and self-determination." That same year, artist Aaron Douglass wrote "our problem is to conceive, develop, establish an art era . . . .Let's bare our arms and plunge them deep deep through the laughter, through pain, through sorrow, through hope, through disappointment, into the very depths of the souls of our people and drag forth material crude, rough, neglected. Then let's sing it, dance it, write it, paint it . . . ." This class explores the extraordinary period of African American literary and cultural production known variously as the Harlem Renaissance, the New Negro Movement, and Black Modernism, depending upon which account you read. Though the period's temporal parameters are also subject to debate, for our purposes, we will explore a range of texts mostly clustered between the world wars, from 1918 to 1940. (We will also read several earlier works that prefigure themes central to our discussion). We will place these works in dialogue with each other, teasing out their aesthetic, ideological and historical underpinnings. We will consider the effects of the separate-but-equal doctrine (Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896) and its attendant forms of reinforcement, lynching and the police-state, on the cultural production of the period. We will explore the competing camps of nationalist versus integrationist thought, African-within-America versus African-and-American. We will examine representations of the color line and African American identity in relation to the unprecedented black migration from the south to the north within the U.S., as well as increased migration to the U.S. from the African diaspora. In view of these domestic and transatlantic migrations, we will trace the ways the American South and the continent of Africa emerge as powerful topos for cultural recovery and collective memory. As we read a number of different texts--poetry, essays, short fiction, novels and music--we will consider questions of genre, from modernism to primitivism, from realism to satire. Within these genres, we will investigate the cultural resources that each writer draws upon, such as rural folklore, urban idioms, various literary canons, and jazz and blues. In response to mass consumer culture, Ford-style industrialism and a growing black middle-class, many of these resources become gendered, class-coded and regionally-defined. In our discussions, we will ask how these resources counter dominant ideas about "high" art as well as reinforce or disable particular artist's claims for an "authentic" black cultural production. We will examine the ways various artists write about mobility as a negotiation of class, gender and geography. Finally, we will situate our interpretations within the larger African American literary canon.

Student learning goals

Improve your ability to read, analyze, and discuss literature

Further develop your writing skills, especially your ability to state your ideas in a succinct, coherent manner and support them with close textual readings

Understand the broader social, historical and cultural contexts in which black literary production has evolved

Assess the impact of African American literature on the artistic and intellectual production of the past and the present

Enhance your sense of the ways in which writing can work as a tool for social change

General method of instruction

This class requires active engagement with the texts and with each other: come to class prepared to discuss the day's readings. We will pool our responses and ideas in our conversations and we will learn from each other's presentations.

Recommended preparation

A note about reading: I recommend that you not only take notes during class meetings but that you also mark interesting passages as you read. This will help you participate in class and ease into your writing. Over the quarter, you will be asked to complete occasional in-class writing assignments, which you should be ready to share with others in class. I encourage you to meet with me during office hours to discuss the readings and assignments.

Class assignments and grading

Requirements: Participation (discussion/ attendance) 15% Group Presentation 15% GoPost (200 word entries, 5 throughout the quarter) 20% Mid-term paper 20% Final paper 30%

Over the quarter, you will draft five informal responses to post on GoPost. You will also work with several other students on a 10-15 minute presentation. There will be one mid-term paper and one final paper. You will receive handouts outlining the expectations for the papers.


The information above is intended to be helpful in choosing courses. Because the instructor may further develop his/her plans for this course, its characteristics are subject to change without notice. In most cases, the official course syllabus will be distributed on the first day of class.
Last Update by Sonnet H. Retman
Date: 09/20/2012