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Literature > American Literature > African American Literature

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Hearts of Gold Cover

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Hearts of Gold

a novel by J. McHenry Jones, edited by John Ernest and Eric Gardner

J. McHenry Jones’s Hearts of Gold is a gripping tale of post-Civil War battles against racism and systemic injustice. Originally published in 1896, this novel reveals an African American community of individuals dedicated to education, journalism, fraternal organizations, and tireless work serving the needs of those abandoned by the political process of the white world. Jones challenges conventional wisdom by addressing a range of subjects—from interracial relationships to forced labor in coal mines—that virtually no other novelist of the time was willing to approach. With the addition of an introduction and appendix, this new edition reveals the difficult foundations upon which African Americans built a platform to address injustice; generate opportunities; and play a prominent role in American social, economic, and political life.

Hemingway and the Black Renaissance Cover

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Hemingway and the Black Renaissance

Edited by Gary Edward Holcomb and Charles Scruggs

Hemingway and the Black Renaissance, edited by Gary Edward Holcomb and Charles Scruggs, explores a conspicuously overlooked topic: Hemingway’s wide-ranging influence on writers from the Harlem Renaissance to the present day. An observable who’s who of black writers—Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman, Chester Himes, Alex la Guma, Derek Walcott, Gayl Jones, and more—cite Hemingway as a vital influence. This inspiration extends from style, Hemingway’s minimalist art, to themes of isolation and loneliness, the dilemma of the expatriate, and the terrifying experience of living in a time of war. The relationship, nevertheless, was not unilateral, as in the case of Jean Toomer’s 1923 hybrid, short-story cycle Cane, which influenced Hemingway’s collage-like 1925 In Our Time. Just as important as Hemingway’s influence, indeed, is the complex intertextuality, the multilateral conversation, between Hemingway and key black writers. The diverse praises by black writers for Hemingway in fact signify that the white author’s prose rises out of the same intensely American concerns that their own writings are formed on: the integrity of the human subject faced with social alienation, psychological violence, and psychic disillusionment. An understanding of this literary kinship ultimately initiates not only an appreciation of Hemingway’s stimulus but also a perception of an insistent black presence at the core of Hemingway’s writing.

Honor Bound Cover

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Honor Bound

Race and Shame in America

David Leverenz

As Bill Clinton said in his second inaugural address, “The divide of race has been America’s constant curse.” In Honor Bound, David Leverenz explores the past to the present of that divide. He argues that in the United States, the rise and decline of white people’s racial shaming reflect the rise and decline of white honor. “White skin” and “black skin” are fictions of honor and shame. Americans have lived those fictions for over four hundred years.To make his argument, Leverenz casts an unusually wide net, from ancient and modern cultures of honor to social, political, and military history to American literature and popular culture.He highlights the convergence of whiteness and honor in the United States from the antebellum period to the present. The Civil War, the civil rights movement, and the election of Barack Obama represent racial progress; the Tea Party movement represents the latest recoil.From exploring African American narratives to examining a 2009 episode of Hardball—in which two white commentators restore their honor by mocking U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder after he called Americans “cowards” for not talking more about race—Leverenz illustrates how white honor has prompted racial shaming and humiliation. The United States became a nation-state in which light-skinned people declared themselves white. The fear masked by white honor surfaces in such classics of American literature as The Scarlet Letter and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and in the U.S. wars against the Barbary pirates from 1783 to 1815 and the Iraqi insurgents from 2003 to the present. John McCain’s Faith of My Fathers is used to frame the 2008 presidential campaign as white honor’s last national stand.Honor Bound concludes by probing the endless attempts in 2009 and 2010 to preserve white honor through racial shaming, from the “birthers” and Tea Party protests to Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” in Congress and the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. at the front door of his own home. Leverenz is optimistic that, in the twenty-first century, racial shaming is itself becoming shameful.

If We Must Die Cover

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If We Must Die

From Bigger Thomas to Biggie Smalls

Aimé J. Ellis

Investigates a variety of texts in which the self-image of poor, urban black men in the U.S. is formed within, by, and against a culture of racial terror and state violence.

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Images of Black Modernism

Verbal and Visual Strategies of the Harlem Renaissance

Miriam Thaggert

Focusing on the years from 1922 to 1938, this book revisits an important moment in black cultural history to explore how visual elements were used in poems, novels, and photography to undermine existing stereotypes. Miriam Thaggert identifies and analyzes an early form of black American modernism characterized by a heightened level of experimentation with visual and verbal techniques for narrating and representing blackness. The work of the writers and artists under discussion reflects the creative tension between the intangibility of some forms of black expression, such as spirituals, and the materiality of the body evoked by other representations of blackness, such as “Negro” dialect. By paying special attention to the contributions of photographers and other visual artists who have not been discussed in previous accounts of black modernism, Thaggert expands the scope of our understanding of the Harlem Renaissance and contributes to a growing recognition of the importance of visual culture as a distinct element within, and not separate from, black literary studies. Thaggert trains her critical eye on the work of James Weldon Johnson, Nella Larsen, George Schuyler, Carl Van Vechten, James Van Der Zee, and Aaron Siskind—artists who experimented with narrative and photographic techniques in order to alter the perception of black images and to question and reshape how one reads and sees the black body. Examining some of the more problematic authors and artists of black modernism, she challenges entrenched assumptions about black literary and visual representations of the early to mid twentieth century. Thaggert concludes her study with a close look at the ways in which Harlem and the Harlem Renaissance were reimagined and memorialized in two notable texts—Wallace Thurman’s 1932 satire Infants of the Spring and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s controversial 1969 exhibition “Harlem on My Mind: The Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968.”

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Imagining the African American West

Blake Allmendinger

The literature of the African American West is the last racial discourse of the region that remains unexplored. Blake Allmendinger addresses this void in literary and cultural studies with Imagining the African American West—the first comprehensive study of African American literature on the early frontier and in the modern urban American West.
 
Allmendinger charts the terrain of African American literature in the West through his exploration of novels, histories, autobiographies, science fiction, mysteries, formula westerns, melodramas, experimental theater, and political essays, as well as rap music and film. He examines the histories of James P. Beckwourth and Oscar Micheaux; slavery, the Civil War, and the significance of the American frontier to blacks; and the Harlem Renaissance, the literature of urban unrest, rap music, black noir, and African American writers, including Toni Morrison and Walter Mosley. His study utilizes not only the works of well-known African American writers but also some obscure and neglected works, out-of-print books, and unpublished manuscripts in library archives.
 
Much of the scholarly neglect of the “Black West” can be blamed on how the American West has been imagined, constructed, and framed in scholarship to date. In his study, Allmendinger provides the appropriate theoretical, cultural, and historical contexts for understanding the literature and suggests new directions for the future of black western literature.

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In the Shadow of the Black Beast

African American Masculinity in the Harlem and Southern Renaissances

Andrew B. Leiter

Andrew B. Leiter presents the first book-length study of the sexually violent African American man, or “black beast,” as a composite literary phenomenon. According to Leiter, the black beast theme served as a fundamental link between the Harlem and Southern Renaissances, with writers from both movements exploring its psychological, cultural, and social ramifications. Indeed, Leiter asserts that the two groups consciously engaged one another’s work as they struggled to define roles for black masculinity in a society that viewed the black beast as the raison d’être for segregation. Leiter begins by tracing the nineteenth-century origins of the black beast image, and then provides close readings of eight writers who demonstrate the crucial impact anxieties about black masculinity and interracial sexuality had on the formation of American literary modernism. James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Walter White’s The Fire in the Flint, George Schuyler’s Black No More, William Faulkner’s Light in August, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Allen Tate’s The Fathers, Erskine Caldwell’s Trouble in July, and Richard Wright’s Native Son, as well as other works, provide strong evidence that perceptions of black male sexual violence shaped segregation, protest traditions, and the literature that arose from them. Leiter maintains that the environment of southern race relations—which allowed such atrocities as the Atlanta riot of 1906, numerous lynchings, Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, and the Scottsboro trials—influenced in part the development of both the Harlem and Southern Renaissances. While the black beast image had the most pernicious impact on African American individual and communal identities, he says the “threat” of black masculinity also shaped concepts of white national and communal identities, as well as white femininity and masculinity. In the Shadow of the Black Beast signals a fresh interpretation of a literary stereotype within its social and historical context.

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In the Shadow of the Gallows

Race, Crime, and American Civic Identity

By Jeannine Marie DeLombard

From Puritan Execution Day rituals to gangsta rap, the black criminal has been an enduring presence in American culture. To understand why, Jeannine Marie DeLombard insists, we must set aside the lenses of pathology and persecution and instead view the African American felon from the far more revealing perspectives of publicity and personhood. When the Supreme Court declared in Dred Scott that African Americans have "no rights which the white man was bound to respect," it overlooked the right to due process, which ensured that black offenders—even slaves—appeared as persons in the eyes of the law. In the familiar account of African Americans' historical shift "from plantation to prison," we have forgotten how, for a century before the Civil War, state punishment affirmed black political membership in the breach, while a thriving popular crime literature provided early America's best-known models of individual black selfhood. Before there was the slave narrative, there was the criminal confession.

Placing the black condemned at the forefront of the African American canon allows us to see how a later generation of enslaved activists—most notably, Frederick Douglass—could marshal the public presence and civic authority necessary to fashion themselves as eligible citizens. At the same time, in an era when abolitionists were charging Americans with the national crime of "manstealing," a racialized sense of culpability became equally central to white civic identity. What, for African Americans, is the legacy of a citizenship grounded in culpable personhood? For white Americans, must membership in a nation built on race slavery always betoken guilt? In the Shadow of the Gallows reads classics by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Edgar Allan Poe, Frederick Douglass, Herman Melville, George Lippard, and Edward Everett Hale alongside execution sermons, criminal confessions, trial transcripts, philosophical treatises, and political polemics to address fundamental questions about race, responsibility, and American civic belonging.

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Inventing the New Negro

Narrative, Culture, and Ethnography

By Daphne Lamothe

It is no coincidence, Daphne Lamothe writes, that so many black writers and intellectuals of the first half of the twentieth century either trained formally as ethnographers or worked as amateur collectors of folklore and folk culture. In Inventing the New Negro Lamothe explores the process by which key figures such as Zora Neale Hurston, Katherine Dunham, W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, and Sterling Brown adapted ethnography and folklore in their narratives to create a cohesive, collective, and modern black identity.

Lamothe explores how these figures assumed the roles of self-reflective translators and explicators of African American and African diasporic cultures to Western, largely white audiences. Lamothe argues that New Negro writers ultimately shifted the presuppositions of both literary modernism and modernist anthropology by making their narratives as much about ways of understanding as they were about any quest for objective knowledge. In critiquing the ethnographic framework within which they worked, they confronted the classist, racist, and cultural biases of the dominant society and challenged their readers to imagine a different set of relations between the powerful and the oppressed.

Inventing the New Negro combines an intellectual history of one of the most important eras of African American letters with nuanced and original readings of seminal works of literature. It will be of interest not only to Harlem Renaissance scholars but to anyone who is interested in the intersections of culture, literature, folklore, and ethnography.

Invisible Criticism Cover

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Invisible Criticism

Ralph Ellison and the American Canon

In 1952 Ralph Ellison won the National Book Award for his Kafkaesque and claustrophobic novel about the life of a nameless young black man in New York City. Although Invisible Man has remained the only novel that Ellison published in his lifetime, it is generally regarded as one of the most important works of fiction in our century.

This new reading of a classic work examines Ellison's relation to and critique of the American literary canon by demonstrating that the pattern of allusions in Invisible Man forms a literary-critical subtext which challenges the accepted readings of such major American authors as Emerson, Melville, and Twain.

Modeling his argument on Foucault's analysis of the asylum, Nadel analyzes the institution of the South to show how it moved blacks from "enslavement" to "slavery" to "invisibility"—all in the interest of maintaining an organization of power based on racial caste. He then demonstrates the ways Ellison wrote in the modernist/surreal tradition to trace symbolically the history of blacks in America as they moved not only from the nineteenth century to the twentieth, and from the rural South to the urban North, but as they moved (sometimes unnoticed) through American fiction.

It is on this latter movement that Nadel focuses his criticism, first demonstrating theoretically that allusions can impel reconsideration of the alluded-to text and thus function as a form of literary criticism, and then reading the specific criticism implied by Ellison's allusions to Emerson's essays and Lewis Mumford's The Golden Days, as well as to "Benito Cereno" and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Nadel also considers Ellison's allusions to Whitman, Eliot, Joyce, and the New Testament.

Invisible Criticism will be of interest not only to students of American and Afro-American literature but also to those concerned about issues of literary theory, particularly in the areas of intertextual relationships, canonicity, and rehistoricism.

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