The John Keene Syllabus: "'Temples for the Future': 20th and 21st Century Black Literary Avant-Gardes"

Topics in African-American Literature

Related: John Keene

**ENGLISH 366 ****Professor John Keene **Northwestern University Fall 2010

Course Description

What do mean when we speak of an “avant-garde”? What constitutes an “avant-garde” or avant-gardes, and how can we think productively about a “Black” or African-American avant-garde or avant-gardes? What is the relation of Black avant-gardes and avant-gardisms, as the creators and residents of aesthetic and cultural subcultures, in relation to the broader matrix of African-American culture and society, and of Euro-American cultures and societies? If, as some theorists have proposed, avant-gardism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries is no longer a viable or coherent concept, can we make the same assessment of Black avant-gardes and Black avant-gardism? This course will explore these and other questions, touching upon various 20th and 21st century constellations of avant-gardist literary poetics, practices and practitioners within the larger context of contemporaneous Black cultural production. In particular, the course will examine aesthetic practices that characterize and construct Black avant-gardisms in African-American and African-Diasporic literatures over the last century, examining the relations of the practitioners and their artworks to dominant intracultural and extracultural social and ideological narratives and structures. The class will explore works in the three major literary genres of poetry, prose fiction, and drama; we will also view cinematic works and listen to musical pieces that further enrich the understanding of the course’s key themes.

Required Texts

Amiri Baraka, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader (Basic Books, 1999): ISBN 1560252383

Renee Gladman, Event Factory (Dorothy, a Publishing Project, 2010):** ISBN** 9780984469307

Nalo Hopkinson, Midnight Robber (Hachette Book Group, 2000): ISBN 0446675601

Adrienne Kennedy, The Adrienne Kennedy Reader (University of Minnesota Press, 2001): ISBN 0816636036

Ntozake Shange, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf (Simon & Schuster Adult, 1997): ISBN 0684843269

If you purchase your books online, please aim for the editions listed above. There may be slight textual changes in more recent editions of the Baraka and Shange books, but if you only are able to get ahold of those, we can work around them.

Week 1: What is the Avant-Garde?

_Online Required:_ Linda Nochlin, "The Invention of the French Avant-Garde: 1830-1880" _Online Required:_ Erica Hunt, "(In re:) Sources of the Black Avant-Garde"; Mark McMorris, "Sincerity and Revolt in Avant-Garde Poetry"; Lorenzo Thomas, "Kindred: Origins of the Black Avant-Garde"

Week 2: Defining Black/Literary Avant-Gardes

Online Required: W. E. B. DuBois,“Criteria of Negro Art,” “The Negro in Literature and Art”; Renato Poggioli, “The Concept of the Avant-Garde”; “Richard Wright: “Blueprint for Negro Writing”

Online Required: Alain Locke, “The New Negro”; Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”; Romare Bearden: “The Negro Artist and Modern Art”; George Schuyler, “The Negro Art Hokum”

Week 3: The Harlem Renaissance as an Avant-Garde Site

Online Required: Poems by Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and Langston Hughes

Online Supplementary: Anne Elizabeth Carroll, “Introduction: Texts, Ideas, and Identities”; Peter Bürger, “Theory of the Avant-Garde and Critical Literary Science”

Online Required: Richard Bruce Nugent, “Smoke, Lilies and Jade”; Langston Hughes, selected poems

Online Supplementary: Anne Elizabeth Carroll, “The Importance of Multiple Identities: Fire!! as an Avant-garde Arts Magazine”

Weekend online digital screening: Looking for Langston (1989)

Students should take two poems from the complete list in the Harlem Renaissance Reader and read them using the critical pressure provided so far by the various critical texts (DuBois, Thomas, etc.) that we’ve read so far. If you want to bring in other theoretical/critical text addressing avant-gardism, that’s fine, but be specific about which texts you’re using. The chief aim of this first paper is to try, in a very short space, to analyze and offer conclusions about a given work of art in light our ongoing conceptualization of avant-gardism. How does the work fit or not fit our definitions? What are its internal contradictions? Specify your criteria and explore them as much as you can. You should be attentive not only to content, but also to the form(s) of the work.

Week 4: Post-War Black Literary Avant-Gardes

Online required: Selected poems by Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Aimé Césaire (in translation), Russell Atkins

Online supplementary: Michael North, “Race, the American Language, and the Americanist Avant-Garde”; Harry Elam, “The Device of Race”

Online Required: selected poems by Ted Joans, Stephen Jonas, Bob Kaufman, Norman Pritchard

Online supplementary: Michael North, “Against the Standard: Linguistic Imitation, Racial Masquerade and the Modernist Rebellion”

Week 5: Adrienne Kennedy and (Black) Avant-Garde Theater

Required: Kennedy, Funny House of a Negro

Online supplementary: Erica Hunt, “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics”

Required: Kennedy, Funny House (cont.); Kennedy, Ohio State Murders

Students should take another one of the recent creative texts (it can be one of the poems by Atkins, Jonas, Kaufman, etc.; one of the Adrienne Kennedy plays; Baraka’s Dutchman or some of the poems from either the pre-Black Nationalist or Black National phase, etc.), and read it using at least one of the critical or historical texts that you did not use in your previous paper. As with the earlier short paper, you may bring in other critical texts addressing avant-gardism, but be specific about which texts you’re using and cite them. The chief aim of this second paper is to try, in a very short space, to analyze and offer conclusions about a given work of art in light our ongoing conceptualization of avant-gardism. Please also add your own critical assessments based on close reading of the text. As with the earlier paper, a key question is, what are the text’s aims, its internal contradictions as expressed in its language, its form or forms, its message? Specify your criteria and explore them as much as you can. Please be attentive not only to content, but also to the form(s) of the work.

Week 6: Amiri Baraka and (Other Poet(rie)s of The) Black Art (s Movement)

Required: Selected poems by LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka

Online required: Selected poems by Nikki Giovanni and Carolyn Rogers

Online Supplementary: Sell, “The Black Arts Movement: Performance, Neo-Orality and the Destruction of the “White Thing”

Required: Jones/Baraka, Dutchman

Weekend online digital screening: In Motion: Amiri Baraka (1983)

Week 7: Ntozake Shange’s Feminist Choreopoetics

Required: Ntozake Shange, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf

Online Supplementary: bell hooks, “Loving Blackness as Political Resistance”

Required: Shange, for colored girls (cont.)

For the Wikipedia project, students should select a writer we have read or another black literary or artistic figure whose work the student believes to be avant-garde, and then you should draft at least 3-4 changes, corrections, emendations, or expanded readings, in the areas of biography, bibliography, theoretical or critical readings, or even an illustrative excerpt of the authors work, to add to her or his page. These do not have to be exhaustive, but they should add something substantial to the page of the writer/artist you select. Please print out the original Wikipedia page, and, after you have made your changes, the edited page. Please note that others across the world very well may use your changes to some degree, so verify any factual information you plan to incorporate; for any interpretive additions, be sure that you could argue them on the merits, and if you have links that buttress your argument, so much the better (and it also means Wikipedia won’t flag your changes).

Week 8: Renee Gladman and Avant-Garde Subjectivities/L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Space

Required: Renee Gladman, Event Factory

Online Supplementary: José Estéban Muñoz, “Performing Disidentifications”;

Required: Gladman, Event Factory (cont.)

Week 9: Nalo Hopkinson and Black Atlantic Futurism(s)

Required: Nalo Hopkinson, Midnight Robber

Online Supplementary: Alondra Nelson, “Introduction: Future Texts”; + handout(s)

Required: Hopkinson, Midnight Robber (cont.)

Weekend online digital screening: Last Angel of History (1996)

Week 10

Final Class Discussion

Thanksgiving Holiday – HAPPY THANKSGIVING!!!

Week 11

Reading Week

Final Paper Guidelines

In your final paper, you should take one or two of the creative works we looked at during the class but which you haven’t already addressed, and analyze it as thoroughly as you can in light of some of the issues we have been raising during our class discussions. As you engage in your critical analysis, which should include some close textual reading, try to keep in mind the central theme of avant-gardism, and its various modes and forms of articulation in the works you are writing about. Making and proving your argument are paramount.

As with the earlier short papers, you may bring in other critical texts (by Adorno, Benjamin, Lyotard, Chakravorty Spivak, Greenblatt, E. Patrick Johnson, etc.) that offer useful theoretical interventions. You may also cite theoretical concepts more broadly (such as psychoanalytic theory, performance theories, etc.). If you bring in biographical information on a given artist, please be sure to cite your sources. In all cases, be specific about which texts you’re using and be sure to cite them clearly (please use the MLA Handbook style).

As with the earlier papers, and beginning with your thesis statement, you should seek to delineate what you see as at least one of the text’s chief aims, its internal contradictions as expressed in its language, its form or forms, and its message. Specify your criteria and explore them as much as you can. As before, please be attentive not only to content, but also to the form(s) of the work.

Your final paper should be around 7 to 10 pages. Try not to pad it to stretch it out. 7 succinct pages go a long way!

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