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Instructor Class Description

Time Schedule:

Sonnet H. Retman
ENGL 318
Seattle Campus

Black Literary Genres

Considers how generic forms have been discussed, distributed, and valued in the larger context of African American, or other African-Diasporic literary studies. Explores how black writers and artists treat the terms and conventions of generic forms in response, and comparison, to their cultural treatment of others. Offered: jointly with AFRAM 318; AWSp.

Class description

In this survey of African American short fiction, we will trace the evolution of the form from the 1890s to the present. We will begin with stories by writers such as Charles Chesnutt and Anna Julia Cooper, exploring their reliance upon and revision of folk sources and the conventions of local color and plantation literature. From there, we will turn to the short fiction of the Harlem Renaissance and mid-twentieth century by writers such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin to examine its engagement with modernist practices. We will end our investigation with a consideration of stories by writers such as Charles Johnson, Andrea Lee and Junot Diaz that enact postmodernist practices of representation. In this literary trajectory, these short stories ask us to rethink the relationship between form and content. They open up new avenues for envisioning black identity as it intersects with gender, sexuality and class; new conceptions of community; and new ways of narrating individual and collective histories. As we read, we will delineate the intertwined aesthetic and political aspects of this economical form. We will ask how the form’s transformations both reflect and act upon the changing literary marketplace.

Student learning goals

• Improve your ability to read, analyze, and discuss literary and cultural texts

• 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 and cultural production have evolved

• Assess the impact of African American cultural production on artistic and intellectual movements of the past and the present

• Enhance your sense of the multiple ways in which art 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 talk about that day's readings. Works of fiction don't always reveal their meanings instantly to a single reader. Our discussions will emerge from our shared responses and ideas.

You will be held accountable for being prepared and ready to participate. You will be asked to respond to our readings in “low-stakes” writing exercises, which you should be ready to share with others in class. (These responses cannot be made up under any circumstances.) You will also work with one other student on a 10 minute group presentation. There will be one mid-term exam, one short paper and one final paper. You will receive handouts outlining the expectations for the exam and papers.

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. I encourage you to meet with me during office hours to discuss the readings and assignments.

Recommended preparation

Though it is not necessary, prior coursework in African American literature and cultural production and African American history will prove helpful.

Class assignments and grading

You will be held accountable for being prepared and ready to participate in class. You will be asked to respond to our readings in “low-stakes” writing exercises, which you should be ready to share with others in class. (These responses cannot be made up under any circumstances.) You will also work with one other student on a 10 minute group presentation. There will be one mid-term exam, one short paper and one final paper. You will receive handouts outlining the expectations for the exam and 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: 06/18/2009