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Literature > American Literature > African American Literature

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Deans and Truants Cover

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Deans and Truants

Race and Realism in African American Literature

By Gene Andrew Jarrett

For a work to be considered African American literature, does it need to focus on black characters or political themes? Must it represent these within a specific stylistic range? Or is it enough for the author to be identified as African American? In Deans and Truants, Gene Andrew Jarrett traces the shifting definitions of African American literature and the authors who wrote beyond those boundaries at the cost of critical dismissal and, at times, obscurity. From the late nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth, de facto deans—critics and authors as different as William Howells, Alain Locke, Richard Wright, and Amiri Baraka—prescribed the shifting parameters of realism and racial subject matter appropriate to authentic African American literature, while truant authors such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, George S. Schuyler, Frank Yerby, and Toni Morrison—perhaps the most celebrated African American author of the twentieth century—wrote literature anomalous to those standards.

Jarrett explores the issues at stake when Howells, the "Dean of American Letters," argues in 1896 that only Dunbar's "entirely black verse," written in dialect, "would succeed." Three decades later, Locke, the cultural arbiter of the Harlem Renaissance, stands in contrast to Schuyler, a journalist and novelist who questions the existence of a peculiarly black or "New Negro" art. Next, Wright's 1937 blueprint for African American writing sets the terms of the Chicago Renaissance, but Yerby's version of historical romance approaches race and realism in alternative literary ways. Finally, Deans and Truants measures the gravitational pull of the late 1960s Black Aesthetic in Baraka's editorial silence on Toni Morrison's first and only short story, "Recitatif."

Drawing from a wealth of biographical, historical, and literary sources, Deans and Truants describes the changing notions of race, politics, and gender that framed and were framed by the authors and critics of African American culture for more than a century.

Dislocating Race and Nation Cover

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Dislocating Race and Nation

Episodes in Nineteenth-Century American Literary Nationalism

Robert S. Levine

American literary nationalism is traditionally understood as a cohesive literary tradition developed in the newly independent United States that emphasized the unique features of America and consciously differentiated American literature from British literature. Robert S. Levine challenges this assessment by exploring the conflicted, multiracial, and contingent dimensions present in the works of late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American and African American writers. Conflict and uncertainty, not consensus, Levine argues, helped define American literary nationalism during this period. Levine emphasizes the centrality of both inter- and intra-American conflict in his analysis of four illuminating "episodes" of literary responses to questions of U.S. racial nationalism and imperialism. He examines Charles Brockden Brown and the Louisiana Purchase; David Walker and the debates on the Missouri Compromise; Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Hannah Crafts and the blood-based literary nationalism and expansionism of the mid-nineteenth century; and Frederick Douglass and his approximately forty-year interest in Haiti. Levine offers critiques of recent developments in whiteness and imperialism studies, arguing that a renewed attention to the place of contingency in American literary history helps us to better understand and learn from writers trying to make sense of their own historical moments. Unsettling the traditional narrative of American literature evolving as a triumphant expression of nationalist efforts, Robert Levine emphasizes the critical role that conflicts over race and nation played in defining American literature from 1750 through the late 1800s. Levine explores some of the important dialogues, convergences, and divergences among white and African American writers and calls attention to writers from the south and west whose contributions were significant in their day. Through Levine's chosen case studies, he also offers critiques of whiteness studies, regional perspectives, and imperial attitudes, arguing that a finer sense of contingency in American literary history appropriately heightens our appreciation of those writers trying to make sense of their own historical moment. Levine emphasizes the centrality of both inter- and intra-American conflict in his analysis of four illuminating "episodes" of literary responses to questions of U.S. racial nationalism and imperialism. He examines Charles Brockden Brown and the Louisiana Purchase; David Walker and the debates on the Missouri Compromise; Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Hannah Crafts and the blood-based literary nationalism and expansionism of the mid-nineteenth century; and Frederick Douglass and his approximately forty-year interest in Haiti. Conflict and uncertainty, not consensus, Levine argues, helped define American literary nationalism during this period. American literary nationalism is traditionally understood as a cohesive literary tradition developed in the newly independent United States that emphasized the unique features of America and consciously differentiated American literature from British literature. Robert S. Levine challenges this assessment by exploring the conflicted, multiracial, and contingent dimensions present in the works of late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American and African American writers. Conflict and uncertainty, not consensus, Levine argues, helped define American literary nationalism during this period. Levine emphasizes the centrality of both inter- and intra-American conflict in his analysis of four illuminating "episodes" of literary responses to questions of U.S. racial nationalism and imperialism. He examines Charles Brockden Brown and the Louisiana Purchase; David Walker and the debates on the Missouri Compromise; Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Hannah Crafts and the blood-based literary nationalism and expansionism of the mid-nineteenth century; and Frederick Douglass and his approximately forty-year interest in Haiti. Levine offers critiques of recent developments in whiteness and imperialism studies, arguing that a renewed attention to the place of contingency in American literary history helps us to better understand and learn from writers trying to make sense of their own historical moments.

Dividing Lines Cover

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Dividing Lines

Class Anxiety and Postbellum Black Fiction

Andreá N. Williams

In Dividing Lines , Andreá N. Williams explores how African American literature in the late 19th century represents class divisions among black Americans. By portraying complex, highly stratified communities with a growing black middle class, authors dispelled popular notions that black Americans were uniformly poor or uncivilized. But even as the writers highlighted middle-class achievement, they worried over whether class distinctions would help or sabotage collective black protest against racial prejudice. Williams argues that the signs of class anxiety are embedded in postbellum fiction: from the verbal stammer or prim speech of class-conscious characters to fissures in the fiction's form. In these telling moments, authors innovatively dared to address the sensitive topic of class differences---a topic inextricably related to American civil rights and social opportunity. Williams delves into the familiar and lesser-known works of Frances E. W. Harper, Pauline Hopkins, Charles W. Chesnutt, Sutton Griggs, and Paul Laurence Dunbar, showing how these texts mediate class through discussions of labor, moral respectability, ancestry, spatial boundaries, and skin complexion. Dividing Lines also draws on reader responses---from book reviews, editorials, and letters---to show how the class anxiety expressed in African American fiction directly sparked reader concerns over the status of black Americans in the U.S. social order.

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Dorothy West's Paradise

A Biography of Class and Color

Cherene Sherrard-Johnson

Dorothy West is best known as one of the youngest writers involved in the Harlem Renaissance. Subsequently, her work is read as a product of the urban aesthetics of this artistic movement. But West was also intimately rooted in a very different milieu—Oak Bluffs, an exclusive retreat for African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard. She played an integral role in the development and preservation of that community. In the years between publishing her two novels, 1948’s The Living is Easy and the 1995 bestseller The Wedding, she worked as a columnist for the Vineyard Gazette.

Dorothy West’s Paradise captures the scope of the author’s long life and career, reading it alongside the unique cultural geography of Oak Bluffs and its history as an elite African American enclave—a place that West envisioned both as a separatist refuge and as a space for interracial contact. An essential book for both fans of West’s fiction and students of race, class, and American women’s lives, Dorothy West’s Paradise offers an intimate biography of an important author and a privileged glimpse into the society that shaped her work.

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Dred

A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp

Harriet Beecher Stowe and Robert S. Levine

Harriet Beecher Stowe's second antislavery novel was written partly in response to the criticisms of ###Uncle Tom's Cabin# (1852) by both white Southerners and black abolitionists. In ###Dred# (1856), Stowe attempts to explore the issue of slavery from an African American perspective. Through the compelling stories of Nina Gordon, the mistress of a slave plantation, and Dred, a black revolutionary, Stowe brings to life conflicting beliefs about race, the institution of slavery, and the possibilities of violent resistance. Probing the political and spiritual goals that fuel Dred's rebellion, Stowe creates a figure far different from the acquiescent Christian martyr Uncle Tom. In his introduction to the classic novel, Robert S. Levine outlines the antislavery debates in which Stowe had become deeply involved before and during her writing of ###Dred#. Levine shows that in addition to its significance in literary history, the novel remains relevant to present-day discussions of cross-racial perspectives. Stowe's 1856 novel, Dred, is considered in many ways a response to leading abolitionists' criticisms of her first novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Contrary to the Christian martyr image promoted by the Uncle Tom character, Dred, the son of Denmark Vesey modeled after Nat Turner, is a black rebel leader of a maroon community in the Great Dismal Swamp. Whereas in UTC Stowe suggested that prayer and colonization were the leading solutions to the problems of slavery in the U.S., in Dred, she suggests that violence is a logical and sacred response to slavery and that free blacks might play significant roles in American society. Levine outlines the contemporary antislavery debates in which Stowe was involved and argues that Dred is her considered response to the changing cultural and political climate of the mid-1850s. **Previously published by Penguin in 2000 (cl & pb); sales =4,000; now OP. Written partly in response to the criticisms of Uncle Tom's Cabin by both white Southerners and black abolitionists, Stowe's second novel, Dred, attempts to explore the issue of slavery from an African American perspective. Through the compelling stories of Nina Gordon, the mistress of a slave plantation, and Dred, a black revolutionary, Stowe brings to life conflicting beliefs about race, the institution of slavery, and the possibilities of violent resistance. Harriet Beecher Stowe's second antislavery novel was written partly in response to the criticisms of ###Uncle Tom's Cabin# (1852) by both white Southerners and black abolitionists. In ###Dred# (1856), Stowe attempts to explore the issue of slavery from an African American perspective. Through the compelling stories of Nina Gordon, the mistress of a slave plantation, and Dred, a black revolutionary, Stowe brings to life conflicting beliefs about race, the institution of slavery, and the possibilities of violent resistance. Probing the political and spiritual goals that fuel Dred's rebellion, Stowe creates a figure far different from the acquiescent Christian martyr Uncle Tom. In his introduction to the classic novel, Robert S. Levine outlines the antislavery debates in which Stowe had become deeply involved before and during her writing of ###Dred#. Levine shows that in addition to its significance in literary history, the novel remains relevant to present-day discussions of cross-racial perspectives.

Each Hour Redeem Cover

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Each Hour Redeem

Time and Justice in African American Literature

Daylanne K. English


Each Hour Redeem advances a major reinterpretation of African American literature from the late eighteenth century to the present by demonstrating how its authors are centrally concerned with racially different experiences of time. Daylanne K. English argues that, from Phillis Wheatley to Suzan-Lori Parks, African American writers have depicted distinctive forms of temporality to challenge racial injustices supported by dominant ideas of time. The first book to explore the representation of time throughout the African American literary canon, Each Hour Redeem illuminates how the pervasive and potent tropes of timekeeping provide the basis for an overarching new understanding of the tradition.


Combing literary, historical, legal, and philosophical approaches, Each Hour Redeem examines a wide range of genres, including poetry, fiction, drama, slave narratives, and other forms of nonfiction. English shows that much of African American literature is characterized by “strategic anachronism,” the use of prior literary forms to investigate contemporary political realities, as seen in Walter Mosley’s recent turn to hard-boiled detective fiction. By contrast, “strategic presentism” is exemplified in the Black Arts Movement and the Harlem Renaissance and their investment in contemporary political potentialities, for example, in Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka’s adaptation of the jazz of their eras for poetic form and content. Overall, the book effectively demonstrates how African American writers have employed multiple and complex conceptions of time not only to trace racial injustice but also to help construct a powerful literary tradition across the centuries.


Early African American Print Culture Cover

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Early African American Print Culture

Edited by Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw both the consolidation of American print culture and the establishment of an African American literary tradition, yet the two are too rarely considered in tandem. In this landmark volume, a stellar group of established and emerging scholars ranges over periods, locations, and media to explore African Americans' diverse contributions to early American print culture, both on the page and off.

The book's seventeen chapters consider domestic novels and gallows narratives, Francophone poetry and engravings of Liberia, transatlantic lyrics and San Francisco newspapers. Together, they consider how close attention to the archive can expand the study of African American literature well beyond matters of authorship to include issues of editing, illustration, circulation, and reading—and how this expansion can enrich and transform the study of print culture more generally.

Published in cooperation with the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture Cover

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Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture

Lisa Woolfork

This study explores contemporary novels, films, performances, and reenactments that depict American slavery and its traumatic effects by invoking a time-travel paradigm to produce a representational strategy of "bodily epistemology." Disrupting the prevailing view of traumatic knowledge that claims that traumatic events are irretrievable and accessible only through oblique reference, these novels and films circumvent the notion of indirect reference by depicting a replaying of the past, forcing present-day protagonists to witness and participate in traumatic histories that for them are neither dead nor past. Lisa Woolfork cogently analyzes how these works deploy a representational strategy that challenges the divide between past and present, imparting to their re-creations of American slavery a physical and emotional energy to counter America's apathetic or amnesiac attitude about the trauma of the slave past.

The Empire Abroad and the Empire at Home Cover

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The Empire Abroad and the Empire at Home

African American Literature and the Era of Overseas Expansion

John Cullen Gruesser

In The Empire Abroad and the Empire at Home, John Cullen Gruesser establishes that African American writers at the turn of the twentieth century responded extensively and idiosyncratically to overseas expansion and its implications for domestic race relations. He contends that the work of these writers significantly informs not only African American literary studies but also U.S. political history.

Focusing on authors who explicitly connect the empire abroad and the empire at home ( James Weldon Johnson, Sutton Griggs, Pauline E. Hopkins, W.E.B. Du Bois, and others), Gruesser examines U.S. black participation in, support for, and resistance to expansion. Race consistently trumped empire for African American writers, who adopted positions based on the effects they believed expansion would have on blacks at home. Given the complexity of the debates over empire and rapidity with which events in the Caribbean and the Pacific changed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it should come as no surprise that these authors often did not maintain fixed positions on imperialism. Their stances depended on several factors, including the foreign location, the presence or absence of African American soldiers within a particular text, the stage of the author’s career, and a given text’s relationship to specific generic and literary traditions.

No matter what their disposition was toward imperialism, the fact of U.S. expansion allowed and in many cases compelled black writers to grapple with empire. They often used texts about expansion to address the situation facing blacks at home during a period in which their citizenship rights, and their very existence, were increasingly in jeopardy.

Eroticism, Spirituality, and Resistance in Black Women's Writings Cover

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Eroticism, Spirituality, and Resistance in Black Women's Writings

Donna Aza Weir-Soley

Western European mythology and history tend to view spirituality and sexuality as opposite extremes. But sex can be more than a function of the body and religion more than a function of the mind, as exemplified in the works and characters of such writers as Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Opal Palmer Adisa, and Edwidge Danticat.

Donna Weir-Soley builds on the work of previous scholars who have identified the ways that black women's narratives often contain a form of spirituality rooted in African cosmology, which consistently grounds their characters' self-empowerment and quest for autonomy. What she adds to the discussion is an emphasis on the importance of sexuality in the development of black female subjectivity, beginning with Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and continuing into contemporary black women's writings.

Writing in a clear, lucid, and straightforward style, Weir-Soley supports her thesis with close readings of various texts, including Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and Morrison's Beloved. She reveals how these writers highlight the interplay between the spiritual and the sexual through religious symbols found in Voudoun, Santeria, Condomble, Kumina, and Hoodoo. Her arguments are particularly persuasive in proposing an alternative model for black female subjectivity.

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