Kerry James Marshall, SOB, SOB

African American Literature in the 21st Century: Race, Aesthetics, and Theory

Instructor: Joseph Earl Thomas
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved forever changed the course of literary study. But if, as the scholar Kenneth Warren has suggested, 20th-century African American literature was a response to Jim Crow, how do we read the vibrant and diverse output of American American literature—and theory—in the 21st century? Everywhere we turn, we see African American literature and theory continuing to expand and change shape, not only inventing new forms, tropes, experiments and reconfigurations on what it means to be human, but also proposing vital critiques of the world, and the American project in particular. How can contemporary African American literature and theory help us understand our own century, with its increased attention to black death, nearly reflexive reiterations of violence, and capitulations to global capitalism in every aspect of social life? What then, if anything now, is African American literature in the 21st century?

In this course, we will explore what African American literature is, was, or might be, by reading 21st-century works by Claudia Rankine, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Saidiya Hartman, and Fred Moten, as well as excerpts from works by Toni Morrison, Hortense Spillers, Frank Wilderson, and Octavia Butler. We will focus on the intersection of aesthetics, politics, and constructions of subjectivity in 21st Century African American literature and theory and ask: what is the relationship between past, present, and future? Can we read Morrison’s late work, alongside Margo Natalie Crawford, as “the circulation of affective energy against and within the structures of history”? Do Frank Wilderson’s and Jared Sexton’s Afro-pessimism forge new paths for critical theory today? As we look at how these works navigate transparency and opacity, abstraction and representation, realism and fantasy, we will also explore the politics of resistance, reparation, and repair. And, looking farther afield, we will ask: What do adjacent fields of inquiry, like affect studies and queer theory, bring to our understanding of black cultural aesthetics?

Course Schedule

Monday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
January 31 — February 21, 2022
4 weeks


Registration Open