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Literature > American Literature > African American Literature

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Abandoning the Black Hero Cover

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Abandoning the Black Hero

Sympathy and Privacy in the Postwar African American White-Life Novel

John C. Charles

Abandoning the Black Hero is the first book to examine the postwar African American white-life novel—novels with white protagonists written by African Americans. These fascinating works have been understudied despite having been written by such defining figures in the tradition as Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Ann Petry, and Chester Himes, as well as lesser known but formerly best-selling authors Willard Motley and Frank Yerby.

            John C. Charles argues that these fictions have been overlooked because they deviate from two critical suppositions: that black literature is always about black life and that when it represents whiteness, it must attack white supremacy. The authors are, however, quite sympathetic in the treatment of their white protagonists, which Charles contends should be read not as a failure of racial pride but instead as a strategy for claiming creative freedom, expansive moral authority, and critical agency.

In an era when “Negro writers” were expected to protest, their sympathetic treatment of white suffering grants these authors a degree of racial privacy previously unavailable to them. White writers, after all, have the privilege of racial privacy because they are never pressured to write only about white life. Charles reveals that the freedom to abandon the “Negro problem” encouraged these authors to explore a range of new genres and themes, generating a strikingly diverse body of novels that significantly revise our understanding of mid-twentieth-century black writing.

Activism and the American Novel Cover

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Activism and the American Novel

Religion and Resistance in Fiction by Women of Color

Channette Romero

Since the 1980s, many activists and writers have turned from identity politics toward ethnic religious traditions to rediscover and reinvigorate their historic role in resistance to colonialism and oppression. In her examination of contemporary fiction by women of color—including Toni Morrison, Ana Castillo, Toni Cade Bambara, Louise Erdrich, and Leslie Marmon Silko—Channette Romero considers the way these novels newly engage with Vodun, Santería, Candomblé, and American Indian traditions. Critical of a widespread disengagement from civic participation and of the contemporary novel’s disconnection from politics, this fiction attempts to transform the novel and the practice of reading into a means of political engagement and an inspiration for social change.

The Aesthetics of Toni Morrison Cover

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The Aesthetics of Toni Morrison

Speaking the Unspeakable

Marc C. Conner

<p class="red">A traditional yet fresh approach to grasping the power of Morrison's writing

With essays by Yvonne Atkinson, Marc C. Conner, Susan Corey, Maria DiBattista, Barbara Johnson, Cheryl Lester, Katherine Stern, and Michael Wood

Nobel laureate Toni Morrison's novels have almost exclusively been examined as sagas illuminating history, race, culture, and gender politics. This gathering of eight essays by top scholars probes Morrison's novels and her growing body of nonfiction and critical work for the complex and potent aesthetic elements that have made her a major American novelist of the twentieth century.

Through traditional aesthetic concepts such as the sublime, the beautiful, and the grotesque, through issues of form, narrative, and language, and through questions of affect and reader response, the nine essays in this volume bring into relief the dynamic and often overlooked range within Morrison's writing. Employing aesthetic ideas that range from the ancient Greeks to contemporary research in the black English oral tradition, The Aesthetics of Toni Morrison shows the potency of these ideas for interpreting Morrison's writing. This is a force Morrison herself has often suggested in her claims that Greek tragedy bears a striking similarity to "Afro-American communal structures."

At the same time each essay attends to the ways in which Morrison also challenges traditional aesthetic concepts, establishing the African American and female voices that are essential to her sensibility. The result is a series of readings that simultaneously expands our understanding of Morrison's work and also provokes new thinking about an aesthetic tradition that is nearly 2,500 years old.

These essays offer a rich complement to the dominant approaches in Morrison scholarship by revealing aspects of her work that purely ideological approaches have obscured or about which they have remained oddly silent. Each essay focuses particularly on the relations between the aesthetic and the ethical in Morrison's writing and between the artistic production and its role in the world at large. These relations show the rich political implications that aesthetic analysis engenders.

By treating both Morrison's fiction and her nonfiction, the essays reveal a mind and imagination that have long been intimately engaged with the questions and traditions of the aesthetic domain. The result is a provocative and original contribution to Morrison scholarship, and to scholarship in American letters generally.

Marc C. Conner is an assistant professor of English at Washington and Lee University. He has published articles in Studies in American Fiction and Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction.

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African American Review

Vol. 43 (2009) through current issue

As the official publication of the Division on Black American Literature and Culture of the Modern Language Association, the quarterly journal African American Review promotes a lively exchange among writers and scholars in the arts, humanities, and social sciences who hold diverse perspectives on African American literature and culture.

African American Roots of Modernism Cover

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African American Roots of Modernism

From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance

James Smethurst

In identifying Jim Crow with the coming of modernity, Smethurst focuses on how artists reacted to the system’s racial territorialization, especially in urban areas, with migration narratives, poetry about the black experience, and black performance of popular culture forms such as ragtime and vaudeville. He shows how black writers such as Fenton Johnson and William Stanley Braithwaite circulated some of the earliest and strongest ideas about an American “bohemia.” Smethurst also upsets the customary assessment of the later Harlem Renaissance as the first and primary site of a nationally significant black arts movement by examining the influence of these earlier writers and artists on the black and white modernists who followed. In so doing, Smethurst brings forward a host of understudied figures while recontextualizing the work of canonical authors such as Charles Chesnutt, Pauline Hopkins, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and James Weldon Johnson. As such, Smethurst positions his work as part of the current growing intellectual conversation about the nature of African American literature and culture between Reconstruction and the Harlem Renaissance. Far from being a “nadir” period, Smethurst argues, this period saw black artists creating cultural forms from which issued some of the most significant literary works of the twentieth century.

African Spiritual Traditions in the Novels of Toni Morrison Cover

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African Spiritual Traditions in the Novels of Toni Morrison

K. Zauditu-Selassie

Toni Morrison herself has long urged for organic critical readings of her works. K. Zauditu-Selassie delves deeply into African spiritual traditions, clearly explaining the meanings of African cosmology and epistemology as manifest in Morrison's novels. The result is a comprehensive, tour-de-force critical investigation of such works as The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Paradise, Love, Beloved, and Jazz.

While others have studied the African spiritual ideas and values encoded in Morrison's work, African Spiritual Traditions in the Novels of Toni Morrison is the most comprehensive. Zauditu-Selassie explores a wide range of complex concepts, including African deities, ancestral ideas, spiritual archetypes, mythic trope, and lyrical prose representing African spiritual continuities.

Zauditu-Selassie is uniquely positioned to write this book, as she is not only a literary critic but also a practicing Obatala priest in the Yoruba spiritual tradition and a Mama Nganga in the Kongo spiritual system. She analyzes tensions between communal and individual values and moral codes as represented in Morrison's novels. She also uses interviews with and nonfiction written by Morrison to further build her critical paradigm.

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Albert Murray and the Aesthetic Imagination of a Nation

Edited by Barbara A. Baker, with contributio Lons fromuis A Rabb, Roberta S. Mag

 
This collection consists of essays written by prominent African American literature, jazz, and Albert Murray scholars, reminiscences from Murray protégés and associates, and interviews with Murray himself. It illustrates Murray’s place as a central figure in African American arts and letters and as an American cultural pioneer.
 
Born in Nokomis, Alabama, and raised in Mobile, Albert Murray graduated from Tuskegee University, where he later taught, but he has long resided in New York City. He is the author of many critically acclaimed novels, memoirs, and essay collections, among them The Omni-Americans, South to a Very Old Place, Train Whistle Guitar, The Spyglass Tree, and The Seven League Boots. He is also a critic and visual artist, as well as a lifelong friend of and collaborator with artistic luminaries such as Ralph Ellison, Duke Ellington, and Romare Bearden. As such, his life and work are testaments to the centrality of southern and African American aesthetics in American art. Murray is widely viewed as a figure who, through his art and criticism, transforms the “fakelore” of white culture into a new folklore that illustrates the centrality of the blues and jazz idioms and reveals the black vernacular as what is most distinct about American art.

American Bards Cover

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American Bards

Walt Whitman and Other Unlikely Candidates for National Poet

Edward Whitley

In this ms Whitley works to defamiliarize and so explore in a fresh way the literary landscape of the mid-19th century into which Whitman emerged. He explores how the idea of a national poet resonated at that time as well as how Whitman stepped into that role. To accomplish this, Whitley traces the histories and literary achievements of three other antebellum poets whose names are not nearly so well-known but whose work paralleled Whitman’s in unexpected ways: James M. Whitfield, Eliza Snow, and John Rollin Ridge. He puts their work in dialogue with Whitman’s poetry--both as it functions now and as it reflected and affected the literary landscape of 19th-c. America. Each of these American poets adopted a posture similar to that of Whitman’s antebellum persona of a social outsider who audaciously claims to be a representative national bard. Rereading Whitman’s place in the nationalist literary milieu of the 1850s through Whitfield, Snow, and Ridge suggests cultural alternatives to the nation-centered discourse that has come to characterize received notions of the antebellum period.

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American Poetry in Performance

From Walt Whitman to Hip Hop

Tyler Hoffman

American Performance Poetry is the first book to trace a comprehensive history of performance poetry in America from Whitman through the rap-meets-poetry scene and to show how the performance of poetry is bound up with the performance of identity and nationality in the modern period. This book will be a meaningful contribution both to the field of American poetry studies and to the fields of cultural and performance studies, as it focuses on poetry that refuses the status of fixed aesthetic object and, in its variability, performs versions of race, class, gender, and sexuality both on and off the page. Relating the performance of poetry to shifting political and cultural ideologies in the United States, Hoffman argues that the vocal aspect of public poetry possesses (or has been imagined to possess) the ability to help construct both national and subaltern communities. In doing so, American Performance Poetry explores public poets’ confrontations with emergent sound recording and communications technologies as those confrontations shape their mythologies of the spoken word and their corresponding notions about America and Americanness.

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American Socialist Triptych

The Literary-Political Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Upton Sinclair, and W. E. B. Du Bois

Mark W. Van Wienen

"A meticulously researched, highly informed, carefully argued, and very accessible account of American socialism, socialists, and socialistic thinking, from the late nineteenth century through the 1960s . . . challenges the intellectual and political legacy of Werner Sombart's Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?, whose spirit still hovers over animated discussions about the 'failures' of socialism in the United States." ---James A. Miller, George Washington University "A valuable rethinking and reframing of the traditions of leftist literary scholarship in the U.S." ---Sylvia Cook, University of Missouri, St. Louis American Socialist Triptych: The Literary-Political Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Upton Sinclair, and W. E. B. Du Bois explores the contributions of three writers to the development of American socialism over a fifty--year period and asserts the vitality of socialism in modern American literature and culture. Drawing upon a wide range of texts including archival sources, Mark W. Van Wienen demonstrates the influence of reform-oriented, democratic socialism both in the careers of these writers and in U.S. politics between 1890 and 1940. While offering unprecedented in-depth analysis of modern American socialist literature, this book charts the path by which the supposedly impossible, dangerous ideals of a cooperative commonwealth were realized, in part, by the New Deal. American Socialist Triptych provides in-depth, innovative readings of the featured writers and their engagement with socialist thought and action. Upton Sinclair represents the movement's most visible manifestation, the Socialist Party of America, founded in 1901; Charlotte Perkins Gilman reflects the socialist elements in both feminism and 1890s reform movements, and W. E. B. Du Bois illuminates social democratic aspirations within the NAACP. Van Wienen's book seeks to re-energize studies of Sinclair by treating him as a serious cultural figure whose career peaked not in the early success of The Jungle but in his nearly successful 1934 run for the California governorship. It also demonstrates as never before the centrality of socialism throughout Gilman's and Du Bois's literary and political careers. More broadly, American Socialist Triptych challenges previous scholarship on American radical literature, which has focused almost exclusively on the 1930s and Communist writers. Van Wienen argues that radical democracy was not the phenomenon of a decade or of a single group but a sustained tradition dispersed within the culture, providing a useful genealogical explanation for how socialist ideas were actually implemented through the New Deal. American Socialist Triptych also revises modern American literary history, arguing for the endurance of realist and utopian literary modes at the height of modernist literary experimentation and showing the importance of socialism not only to the three featured writers but also to their peers, including Edward Bellamy, Hamlin Garland, Jack London, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Claude McKay. Further, by demonstrating the importance of social democratic thought to feminist and African American campaigns for equality, the book dialogues with recent theories of radical egalitarianism. Readers interested in American literature, U.S. history, political theory, and race, gender, and class studies will all find in American Socialist Triptych a valuable and provocative resource.

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