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Instructor Class Description

Time Schedule:

Sonnet H. Retman
AFRAM 214
Seattle Campus

Survey of Afro-American Literature

A chronological survey of Afro-American literature in all genres from its beginnings to the present day. Emphasizes Afro-American writing as a literary art; the cultural and historical context of Afro-American literary expression and the aesthetic criteria of Afro-American literature. Offered: jointly with ENGL 258.

Class description

This course traces the African American literary tradition from its beginnings in the 18th century to the contemporary moment. Our readings span roughly five periods of literary production: the colonial and early national eras; the antislavery era; the post-reconstruction era; the early twentieth century; the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. We will cover a myriad of genres including poetry, essays, short stories and novels. We will situate each work within its aesthetic, historical and ideological context. This is an ambitious but rewarding undertaking--it requires that you keep up with reading and actively engage with the material in our discussions and class assignments. Even though this class is lecture-sized, we will aim for a seminar environment in which we freely exchange and collaborate upon ideas. Throughout the quarter, we will focus on a range of questions, including: What are the ramifications of the shift from oral to written forms of expression within African American culture? With this shift, what artistic innovations take place within African American literature? What are the connections between authorship and authority? How does literacy dovetail with freedom, citizenship and power? What are the stakes in constituting an African American literary tradition or canon? How do African American writers speak to each other and also address dominant myths of race? How does the literature discuss race as it intersects with class, gender, sexuality and nationality? This class aims to make you familiar with this rich and vital body of literature as well as provide you with an interpretive framework with which to guide future reading beyond the course list.

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 evolved

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

Enhance your sense of the multiple 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. Works of fiction don't always reveal their meanings instantly to a single reader. Meanings usually emerge through a sharing of responses and ideas. You will be held accountable for being prepared and ready to participate.

Recommended preparation

Class assignments and grading

Over the quarter, you will take several quizzes that ask a few straightforward questions about the reading. I will throw out your lowest quiz grade. You should view these quizzes as a way to get credit for keeping up with the class reading. You will also work with two to three other students on a 5-10 minute presentation. There will be a midterm and one final paper. You will receive handouts outlining the expectations for the presentation, the exam and the written work. 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 may 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.


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: 02/01/2008