courses

COURSES IN BLACK STUDIES

Wright-Ellison-Baldwin

What is the political responsibility of the writer? Is the Black writer obligated to testify to, represent, and subject to critique the deep effects and affects of anti-Black racism? Or is the responsibility also something different, something better when committed to documenting life outside and in the cracks of an anti-Black racist world? What is art in relation to politics, politics in relation to art? What ought the artist do with the rage generated by three and a half centuries of anti-blackness? And with the pleasures of life that exist alongside that rage? This course explores the mid-century dispute between Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin concerning the meaning of the Black writer. Questions of colonialism, the uniqueness of the African-American experience, affective life (from rage to pleasure), community, and the genesis of cultural production will frame our readings and critical discussions. Beginning with exemplary novels by Wright, Ellison, and Baldwin – Native Son, Invisible Man, and Go Tell It on the Mountain – we will then consider their non-fiction, focusing on how each thinks through problems of nihilism, art, racialized subjectivity, gender, language, sexuality, class, region, and politics in a national and transnational context. As well, the questions raised in the fiction and non-fiction will help us engage with a cluster of contemporaries (Lorraine Hansberry, Norman Mailer, Kenneth Clark, others) and predecessors (Bessie Smith, W.E.B. Du Bois, Louis Armstrong, Alain Locke, Zora Neale Hurston), all of whom hold important critical positions in this argument.

Fanon and After

Who was Frantz Fanon as a theorist? How did he change our thinking about colonialism, its contestation, and what comes after? And how are we to assess his legacy after decades of critical assessment? Fanon is arguably the most important anti-colonial writer of his generation. His decade of work, beginning in 1952 with Black Skin, White Masks and ending upon his death in 1961, engaged the major trends of his day: existentialism, Négritude, surrealism, psychoanalysis, and Marxism. But Fanon makes those trends his own by infusing them with imperatives of anti-, de-, and post-colonial thinking, fundamentally revolutionizing basic philosophical and political categories, from language to dialectic to the self to a wide range of formal and informal social institutions. What is Fanonian thinking in these intersections? And what is its future? To those ends, the aim of this course is simple: read all of Fanon’s published work and assess its meaning and legacy. We will offer close readings of Fanon’s books, essays, and psychiatric case studies, and then examine how that work has been received both inside the Caribbean and Africa (Édouard Glissant, the creolist movement, Achille Mbembe, and others) and across the global South (Homi Bhabha and others). What will emerge from our studies is a deep understanding of Fanon the thinker and an appreciation of the complexity of anti-colonial, de-colonial, and post-colonial thought and practice in his wake.

Introduction to Postcolonial Theory

What was colonialism? What sort of shadow does it cast over the formerly colonized world, even after formal colonial relations have ended? How does colonialism survive independence? What is the postcolonial moment? And what does it call for in processes of decolonization? This course introduces postcolonial theory as a form of philosophical thinking, political strategy, and transformative cultural intervention. We will read works on the meaning of colonialism and the imperatives of decolonial thinking from the black Atlantic world, including early thinkers like Albert Memmi, Aimé Césaire, and Frantz Fanon and their legacy in more contemporary thinkers like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka, Édouard Glissant, and Achille Mbembe. As well, we will read selections from key figures in global postcolonial theory including Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha, and Subcommandante Marcos. Our aim across these readings is to register the deep and complex harm of centuries of conquest, enslavement, and colonial rule, and the complicated, often paradoxical task of making a world after colonialism. That complicated and paradoxical task, as we shall see, makes it difficult, if not impossible, to make clean distinctions between the individual and the collective, ethnicity and race, history and memory, and ultimately culture and politics.

Baldwin and the Black Atlantic

As one of the most important writers of his generation, James Baldwin articulated key truths about race and racism in the United States. His fiction and non-fiction bear witness to the cruelty of anti-black racism, while also attending to the complexities of love, hope, and community in the African-American context and the context of democracy in the United States more widely. But he lived and wrote in an era that saw an explosion of black writing across the diaspora. His era was also the era of the postcolonial global South, the source of radical and revolutionary writings about race, identity, revolution, and massive cultural upheaval. How does Baldwin’s long reflection on race and Americanness sit in relation to other theorizings of blackness and nation from that same historical moment in the Caribbean and West Africa? What critical tensions emerge when Baldwin’s work is drawn into conversation with figures like Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Léopold Senghor, and others? This course focuses on Baldwin’s non-fiction and its complicated relation to mid-century trends in black Atlantic theory, from the racialism of Négritude to various iterations of existentialism to post-independence notions of pan-Africanism and Black Power. What emerges from our considerations will be a portrait of Baldwin as a writer of the particularity of African-American experience and as a vernacular intellectual dedicated to the articulation of localized forms of knowing and being, while also being attentive to the blurry borders of blackness, whiteness, and the history of anti-black racism.

The Concept of Race

What do we mean by the term “race”?  From where does the concept come and what role did “race” play in white Western modernity? Is “race” always a destructive concept, or can it be re-defined and re-deployed as part of critical and emancipatory projects? This course explores the concept of race in three basic moments. First, we will look at how our contemporary language of race originated in the Enlightenment and was conceived and justified by some of the key figures of white Western intellectual life, including John Locke, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and G.W.F. Hegel. This genealogical moment reveals race-thinking as foundational to European identity. Second, we will read and critically assess contemporary theorizations of race in order to see how notions of blackness are generated and to what extent, if any, those notions are defensible as liberatory ideas. This political moment critically examines the relationship between identity, tradition, and ideas of race.  Third, we will explore how whiteness has been conceived across history in relation to abject racial categories and how whiteness survives, functions, and exercises power in forms of invisibility and hyper-visibility. This analytical moment interrogates the relationship between whiteness as a political identity and anti-Black violence and terror.

Incarcerating Blackness 

This course explores the complex relationship between race, racism, and mass incarceration. Readings from the African-American intellectual tradition, contemporary critics of the prison industrial complex, and memoirs from political prisoners will help us understand the depth and structure of the historical and cultural meaning of racialized imprisonment. In particular, we will look at how incarceration has been both a metaphor for the Black experience in the United States and a constant presence in that experience as a form of social, cultural, and political control.  We will also examine how economic factors intersect with race and racism in the expansion of the prison system in the United States. Lastly, we will read a cluster of prison memoirs in light of contemporary historical and critical race analysis in order to discern the effects and affects of imprisonment on African-American life.

Panther Theory: Reading Black Power

What is the memory and legacy of the Black Panther Party? The Party is probably best known for its militant politics and iconic imagery: guns, leather jackets, confrontations with the police, and often audacious forms of public protest. We remember those politics and that imagery for good reason: the Party’s organization and struggle galvanized communities beleaguered by poverty, police violence, and mass incarceration. But it is important to also recall that the Black Panthers were an intellectual movement that theorized mobilization, forms of strategy, ideas of solidarity and collaboration, and armed self-defense out of close study of a wide range of both conventional and revolutionary thinkers. This course focuses on that element of the Party’s life, exploring the Black Panthers as an intellectual movement. We will read key figures Huey P. Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Elaine Brown, and Angela Davis with close attention to how they engage and transform canonical figures of Western philosophy like Socrates, Descartes, and G.W.F. Hegel, as well as revolutionary writers Karl Marx, V.I. Lenin, Che Guevara, Mao Tse-Tung, and Frantz Fanon. We will also discuss how the Party related to the wider Black Power movement through public debates on political and cultural nationalism and internationalism. Across our reading and discussion, we will have to think carefully about how Party social programs in nutrition, education, and healthcare emerged out of – and not just alongside or in addition to – militant political theory and action. The class will work closely with the Amherst College Library, which houses an extensive collection of Black Power newspapers, original writings, and other materials in the College’s archive. This course will also focus on group and independent research with the aim of making our findings publicly available.  : SYLLABUS :

Spike Lee’s Joints (with Marisa Parham)

In offering extended formal considerations of Spike Lee’s cinematic oeuvre–in particular his uses of light, sound, and color–this course is interested in how shifting through various modes of critical inquiry can enable or broaden different kinds of cultural, political, or historical engagement with a film. This semester we will also pay special attention to the question of what it means to encapsulate a particular cultural moment, particularly vis-à-vis the often differing demands of fictional and non-fictional representation.

Du Bois and After

This course offers a systematic study of the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, drawing on the whole range of his life and writing in order to assess his importance for theorizing race, racism, and the human condition. What do we mean by “race”?  How is our understanding of history, consciousness, and hope transformed by the experience of anti-black racism?  What is the role of gender, class, and nation in theorizing race and racism?  In Du Bois’ early work on these questions, especially his masterpiece Souls of Black Folk, we encounter some of the most significant foundational work in the black intellectual tradition.  Themes of double-consciousness, the color line, and the veil set many of the terms of discussion for the twentieth century and after.  In this course, we will read this early work closely, but also consider the development of his later thought in historical and intellectual context, putting Du Bois in dialogue with his contemporaries William James, Booker T. Washington, Josiah Royce, and others, as well as considering contemporary appropriations of his work.  Lastly, we will read Du Bois critically by considering recent scholarship on his often fraught relationship to questions of gender, class, and transnational identity.  Across these readings, we will develop a deep, engaged appreciation of the scope and power of Du Bois’ thinking and the fecundity of his intellectual legacy.  : SYLLABUS :

Introduction to African-American Philosophy

What is distinctive about African-American experience?  How does that distinctiveness bear on the theory and practice of philosophy and philosophical thinking?  And how does the African-American philosophical tradition alter conventional philosophical accounts of subjectivity, knowledge, time, language, history, embodiment, memory, and justice?  In this course, we will read a range of African-American thinkers from the twentieth century in order to develop an appreciation of the unique, critical philosophical voice in the black intellectual tradition.  Our readings of works by W.E.B. Du Bois, Anna Julia Cooper, Alain Locke, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Angela Davis, Anthony Appiah and Cornel West will open up crucial issues that transform philosophy’s most central problems:  knowing, being, and acting.  As well, we will consider the cluster of thinkers with whom those works are critically concerned, including key texts from nineteenth century German philosophy, American pragmatism, and contemporary existentialism and postmodernism.  What emerges from these texts and critical encounters is a sense of philosophy and philosophical practice as embedded in the historical experience–in all of its complexity–of African-Americans in the twentieth century.  : SYLLABUS :

The Creole Imagination (with Rhonda Cobham-Sander)

What would it mean to write in the language in which we dream?  A language that we can hear, but cannot (yet) see?  Is it possible to conceive a language outside the socio-symbolic order?  And can one language subvert the codes and values of another?  Questions like these have animated the creolité/nation language debate among Caribbean intellectuals since the mid-1970s, producing some of the most significant francophone and anglophone writing of the twentieth century.  This course reads across philosophy, cultural theory, politics, and literature in order to consider the claims such works make for the Creole imagination.  We will engage the theoretical and creative work of Édouard Glissant, Maryse Condé, Wilson Harris, Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Patrick Chamoiseau, Jamaica Kincaid, and Edwidge Danticat.  We also will consider how these writers transform some of the fundamental ideas of psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, and critical historiography.  At stake in our readings will be the various aesthetic and political aspects of postcolonial struggle–how to think outside the colonial architecture of language; how to contest and subvert what remains from history’s violence; and how to evaluate the claims to authenticity of creolized New World cultural forms.  : SYLLABUS :

Marvelous Blackness

In the moment of anti-colonial struggle, what meanings can be found in cultural forms and expressions? Are the colonized suffocated by the violence of history and the imposition of foreign cultural forms? Or is another language, poetics, community, and politics possible? How might another language, poetics, etc., redefine the meaning of blackness after colonialism? In this course we will examine these questions as they arise in the anti-colonial movements of mid-twentieth century Francophone Africa and the Caribbean. Our readings will engage questions of nation, identity, language, and the cultural and political meaning of diaspora in the Surrealist and Negritude movements. In particular, we will examine the complex and subtle debate between theorists, artists, and poets René Ménil, Aimé Césaire, Léon Damas, and Léopold Senghor regarding the theory and practice of anti-colonial culture and politics. What are the limits and possibilities of Surrealism and its conception of “the marvelous”? How is that conception of the marvelous transformed and politicized in the pan-African context of the Negritude movement? What does blackness mean in these two movements? How are questions of race transformed by the Surrealist and Negritude methods of cultural and political creation? As well, we will consider the lesser-known contributions by Suzanne Césaire, Paulette Nardal, and Jane Nardal to these movements and consider crucial questions of gender in the politics of cultural meaning. Last, we will measure the veracity of Surrealism and Negritude in relation to the political movements, poetry, and plastic arts produced by those movements, with special attention to Césaire’s Martinique and Senghor’s Sénégal.   : SYLLABUS :

Theorizing the Black Atlantic

What happens to culture in the transition between Africa, Europe, and the Americas?  What new forms of subjectivity, community, and culture emerge in the Americas?  How do these new forms help us clarify the specifically African sense of “diaspora”?  How does the experience of “the black Atlantic” alter our understanding of history and the development of ideas?  In addressing these questions, this course examines themes of hybridity, double-consciousness, Modernity, and diaspora in contemporary philosophy and cultural theory.  Our attention will center on the work of Paul Gilroy, whose reflections on black Atlantic cultural formations have broken new theoretical ground over the past two decades. Gilroy’s work will allow us to engage theoretically with the peculiar historical dynamics of the black Atlantic, which, in turn, enables us to attend at some depth to this particular diasporic consciousness through characterizations of literature, art, philosophy, and music.  Alongside Gilroy, we will read other core theoretical texts on the black Atlantic by Du Bois, Césaire, Fanon, Wright, Baldwin, and others. In order to establish context and some points of contrast, we will also read important texts on the philosophy of history and history of ideas by Hegel, Nietzsche, Benjamin, and Bhabha.  These varied reflections on the black Atlantic and the dynamics of cultural development help us understand the distinctive character of the African diaspora and its hybrid intellectual productions.   : SYLLABUS :

Black Existentialism

During the middle decades of the twentieth century, existentialism dominated the European philosophical and literary scene.  Prominent theorists such as J-P Sartre, Albert Camus, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty put the experience of history, alienation, and the body at the center of philosophical and literary life.  It should be no surprise, then, that existentialism appealed to so many Afro-Caribbean and African-American thinkers of the same period and after.  This course examines the critical transformation of European existentialist ideas through close readings of black existentialists Aime Césaire, Frantz Fanon, George Lamming, and Wilson Harris, paired with key essays from Sartre, Camus, and Merleau-Ponty. As well, we will engage black existentialism not just as a series of claims, but also a method, which allows us to read works by African-American writers such as W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison in an existentialist frame.  Lastly, we will consider the matter of how and why existentialism continues to function so centrally in contemporary Africana philosophy.   : SYLLABUS :

The Afro-Postmodern

This course examines the meaning of “the postmodern” in contemporary Caribbean and African-American philosophy, cultural theory, and the arts. What is the postmodern? And how does the experience of the Americas transform the meaning of postmodernity? Four basic concepts guide our inquiry: fragmentation, nomad, rhizome, and creoleness. Short readings from European theorists will provide the backdrop for our treatment of how the experiences of the Middle Passage, colonialism, and postcolony life fundamentally transform postmodern ideas. In tracking this transformation, readings and reflections will explore the possible meanings of the Afro-postmodern in the works of Édouard Glissant, Antonio Benítez-Rojo, Wilson Harris, and Patrick Chamoiseau. In addition, with such theoretical considerations in place, the class will examine the specifically Afro-postmodern significance of aesthetic practices in dub, sampling, graffiti, and anti-racist irony. Lastly, the class will consider how Afro-postmodern conceptions of mixture, counter-narrative, and syncretism offer an alternative to dominant accounts of modernity and globalization.   : SYLLABUS :

Critical Debates in Black Studies

In this course students will focus closely on major debates that have animated the field of Black Studies, addressing a wide range of issues from the slave trade to the present. Each week will focus on specific questions such as: What came first, racism or slavery? Is African art primitive? Did Europe underdevelop Africa? Is there Caribbean History or just history in the Caribbean? Should Black Studies exist? Is there a black American culture? Is Affirmative Action necessary? Was the Civil Rights Movement a product of government action or grass-roots pressure? Is the underclass problem a matter of structure or agency? The opposing viewpoints around such questions will provide the main focus of the reading assignments, which will average two or three articles per week. In the first four weeks, students will learn a methodology for analyzing, contextualizing, and making arguments that they will apply in developing their own positions in the specific controversies that will make up the rest of the course.   : SYLLABUS :

Introduction to Black Studies

This interdisciplinary introduction to Black Studies combines the teaching of foundational texts in the field with instruction in reading and writing. The first half of the course employs How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren as a guide to the careful reading of books focusing on the slave trade and its effects in Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States. Important readings in this part of the course include Black Odyssey by Nathan Huggins, Racism: A Short History by George Frederickson, andThe Black Jacobins by C. L. R. James. The second half of the course addresses important themes from the turn of the twentieth century to the present. Beginning with The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois, it proceeds through a range of seminal texts, including The Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon and The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. This part of the course utilizes How to Write a Sentence by Stanley Fish to extend the lesson in reading from the first half of the semester into an exploration of precision and style in writing. Writing exercises based on How to Write a Sentence and three short essays – one on a single book, another comparing two books, and the last on a major theme in the course – provide the main opportunity to apply and reinforce skills in reading and writing learned throughout the semester. After taking this course, students at all levels of preparation should emerge not only with a good foundation for advancement in Black Studies but also with a useful set of guidelines for further achievement in the humanities and the social sciences.   : SYLLABUS :

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