… History of Ideas in the Atlantic Tradition(s) …
I teach broadly in the black Atlantic intellectual tradition, with a specialty in francophone and anglophone Caribbean studies. In particular, I am interested in questions of vernacular culture, racial formation, and theories of liberation in the African, Caribbean, and African American contexts. Below are some recent course descriptions for classes I’ve taught with links to a syllabus where available.
Theorizing the Americas
How is the meaning of “the Americas” related to the founding wounds of the hemisphere: conquest and slavery? What would it mean to think through those wounds as the condition of a poetics and cultural politics? How does the interplay of colonialism, decoloniality, and the postcolonial moment help us make sense of the mixed space of identity and cultural formation? This course examines the function of history and memory in theorizing the Americas, with particular focus on how the historical experience of conquest, genocide, and the Middle Passage animate a poetics and cultural politics of place. To that end, we will read contemporary writers including Glissant, Condé, Kincaid, Brathwaite, Wynter, Quijano, Dussel, and Mignolo in order to register the long shadow cast by the founding wounds of the Americas. Key concepts and critical sites, embedded in critical and literary work, will include rhizomatic thinking, Plantation, hybridity, modernity-postmodernity-countermodernity, migration and indigeneity, and the vicissitudes of traumatic memory and affect. Through these critical concepts and their complex origins, we will explore the paradoxes that emerge from traumatic beginning, namely, how pain and melancholia are simultaneous with beauty and its pleasures. And in those concepts, we will see how key intellectuals have reckoned with that beginning and then work productively inside the paradoxes of pain and beauty.
Seminar on Angela Davis
Angela Davis’ work spans some of the most provocative and important cultural and political moments in recent U.S. history. Beginning with the Black Power and Black Panther movements of the late-1960s and 1970s, through innovations in the Black feminist movement in the 1980s onward, and recently with questions of racialized mass incarceration and links between Palestinian and African-American freedom struggle, Davis has forged a militant vision of racial, sexual, and transnational liberation. Her writerly and analytic voice blends philosophy and political theory with the urgent demands of activism and direct action. In this course, we will read across her life’s work, beginning with early essays and her autobiography, up through recent reflections on mass incarceration, Palestine, and #BlackLivesMatter. As well, we will examine Davis’ influences and how she transforms and extends their thought, ranging from Karl Marx and Herbert Marcuse to Frederick Douglass, Assata Shakur, and Huey Newton, among others. What emerges from these readings is a rigorous and radical vision of liberation drawn from a powerful mixture of critical theory, vernacular culture, and political activism.
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.
In this course, we will examine 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, our readings and reflections will explore the possible meanings of the Afro-postmodern in the works of Édouard Glissant, Maryse Condé, Antonio Benitez-Rojo, Wilson Harris, and the founders of the créolité movement. As well, with such theoretical considerations in place, we will examine the specifically afropostmodern significance of aesthetic practices in dub, sampling, graffiti, and anti-racist irony. Lastly, as a broad and encompassing issue, we will consider how afropostmodern conceptions of mixture, counter-narrative, and syncretism offer an alternative to dominant accounts of modernity and globalization.
Spike Lee’s Joints
This course explores the cinema of Spike Lee, beginning with his early film School Daze and concluding with his recent Black KkKlansman. We will not watch Lee’s entire oeuvre – that would take much more than a semester – but instead examine key films in order to understand and come to terms with his thinking about race, class, gender, and sexuality, as well as his aesthetic choices that loop and thread together those overtly political concerns. All of these are structured aroundthe central theme in Lee’s filmmaking: what it means to put Black bodies, Black people, and Black life on the cinematic screen. Across film history in the U.S., this screen is terrifying. Lee works to counter that by taking on the burden of Black representation.
The burden of filmmaking is therefore a central theme of our critical engagement with his films.
We begin with two pieces that place the crisis of Black people on the cinematic screen and the burden of filmmaking in raw, almost traumatic terms: Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle (1987) and Lee’s Bamboozled (2000). How does Lee respond to this crisis? How is his response reflected in character, story, lighting, sound and other cinematic languages? How does Lee work as a political actor – a critic of Black life, defender of Black life, and witness to disastrous state violence? And, how does Lee develop as a thinker and maker, both in terms of self-criticism and commentary on emerging issues?
At the end of this course, you will have a strong sense of Spike Lee’s vision and development as a filmmaker. That is paramount. But you will also develop a clear sense of what a Black Studies approach to film looks like, how to practice it, and how to see Lee’s films in particular, and Black filmic practices and tasks more broadly, as part of the African-American intellectual tradition. Cinema thinks. With Lee, we will see how cinema thinks in specifically African-American ways as witness, elegy, and criticism.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 gendered and economic factors intersect with race and racism in the expansion of the prison system in the United States. Lastly, we will examine key cultural objects that reflect on racialized incarceration, reading them in light of contemporary historical and critical race analysis in order to discern the effects and affects of imprisonment on African-American life.
This course introduces one of the most important and potent mid-century intellectual movements, the existentialist movement, through a series of black Atlantic thinkers. Our keystone will be Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, which is arguably the most important work of Black existentialism from this period. Across the semester we will see why existentialism, with its focus on the ambiguities and ambivalences of lived-experience, had such a deep impact on Black thinkers across the diaspora. We will see these existentialist insights register in literature, philosophy, and film – drawing from Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Ousame Sembène, Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, and Barry Jenkins. Old and new.