Black Literature and the Urban Experience
Course Syllabus
Yale University Seminar

Brief Description

This course is designed to encourage students to think critically about the meaning and role of the urban in the work of modern African American writers.  Considering the urban experience as both an aesthetic and an experiential challenge, we investigate the various ways that these writers narrated that experience and, in so doing, reshaped both the form and content of modern literature.  Engaging the relation between city life, race, class, gender, and sexuality as our primary critical lenses, and its literary representation as our primary site of inquiry, the class will also incorporate visual art as a significant companion to much of this literature.  The aim of the course is to initiate a conversation between these diverse texts and their own historical context, as well as between the texts themselves as we move through time and space.

Black Literature and the Urban Experience

This seminar probes the historical production of the black urban subject through its literary representation.  Structured chronologically and geographically, the syllabus extends over the entire twentieth century and over four distinct geographic regions: New York, Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles.  Moving forward from the Great Migration, we explore the evolution of literary responses to the new conditions and experiences met with in the emergent urban spaces to which blacks migrated.  In this undertaking we define space as more than the physical infrastructure of built environments; in our study of the development of black urban literature, we investigate the crucial role that culture plays in spatial and social production and reproduction.  We examine the role that gender, class affiliation, sexuality, historical context, and geographical variation play in generating the meanings and experiences of the urban that permeate the disparate literary texts included in this syllabus. Students will interrogate the status of the urban itself – whether celebrated, feared, demonized, romanticized – in order to situate the production of a new urban black identity in relation to broader currents in American social history.

In his 1938 essay, “Urbanism as a Way of Life”, social critic Louis Wirth asserted that “size, density, and heterogeneity” define urban space, and that it is these elements that, in tandem, create the “forms of social action and organization that typically emerge” within the modern city.  Wirth depicts these distinct molecular units as in a state of perpetual conflict and antagonism.  Other critics, most notably, Robert Park of the Chicago School of Sociology, characterized the city as a bastion of individual spatial and social mobility, in which the urbanite could traverse and inhabit freely different spaces and selves.  While Wirth regarded the city as determined by confinement and tension, Park emphasized its liberatory possibilities.  These two views represent persistent responses to city life and the life of the city in the modern era.  In this course, we will evaluate the relative merits and deficiencies of each of these qualifications.  In so doing, we will trace the literary representations of the “urban experience”, its creative, social, and economic opportunities, as well as the redefined forms of enclosure that greeted many black migrants and their offspring.

Course Requirements

As this class is a seminar, class participation entails a substantive portion of your grade.  Therefore, you are encouraged to be an active participant in our weekly meetings.  Regular attendance is mandatory.  Prior to each class meeting, students will submit one discussion question per week via e-mail to the class list.  Each student will be required to make a class presentation, in which they will present material from the primary text under consideration for that week.  These will be no more than twenty minutes in length.  There will be one close reading assignment due in class the fifth week of the semester – we will spend a significant portion of the first session going over expectations for this assignment.  The Midterm exam will be composed of identifications, short answers, and two essay questions.  This will be a take-home examination.

The final paper offers students the chance to explore in greater detail a central issue, theme, or problem that has emerged from the material and class discussion.  There is a wide range of topics and material for students to engage, both related to the required texts and to a host of others that were left off of the syllabus for lack of time.  For example, students might research the development and significance of the detective novel genre in black urban fiction; the multiracial dimensions of a specific geographical urban space (e.g. Paris’s racially mixed expatriate American community in the Latin Quarter); dramatic representations of city life (e.g. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun); representations of the South vis-à-vis the “urban scene” (e.g., Richard Wright’s Twelve Million Black Voices); or urban migration from the Caribbean to North America (e.g. Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones).  Students must engage two texts (at least one of which appears on the syllabus, and at least one of which is literary) in performing this critical exercise.  Final paper topics must be discussed with the instructor, and must be written up as formal proposals four weeks prior to the due date.  You are welcome to submit drafts of all written work for me to look over – but these must be turned in at least one week (7 days) prior to the date they are due.  Late Papers will be marked down 1/3 of a grade per day past the date on which they are due.

Final Grade Breakdown:

E-mail Responses, attendance, and class participation: 30%
Close reading assignment: 10%
Midterm Exam: 20%
Class Presentation: 10%
Final Paper: 30%

Required Texts

James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912)
Richard Wright, Lawd Today (1936)
Dorothy West, The Living is Easy (1948)
Chester Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945)
Gwendolyn Brooks, Blacks (1987)
St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, Black Metropolis: a Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (1945)
Ann Petry, The Street (1946)
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963)
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (1993)
Toni Morrison, Jazz (1992)

Week One: The “Great” Migration

  • Course Overview
  • Outline of course requirements and expectations
  • Historical context of Great Migration
  • What is a close reading?
  • Assign Pauline Hopkins, “The New York Subway” (1904)

Week Two: From Black to White and Black Again

James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
* “Slumming,” in Kevin Mumford, Interzones: Black/White Sex Districts in Chicago and New York in the Early Twentieth Century
**Interzones is on 24-hour reserve at CCL

Week Three: The “New Negro” in the City

*Rudolph Fisher, “City of Refuge” (1925) and “Blades of Steel” (1927)
*Chapter One: “New Negroes, New Spaces”, in Maria Balshaw, Looking for Harlem: Urban Aesthetics in African American Literature
*Eric Garber, “The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem,” in Martha Baum Duberman, Martha Vicinus and George Chauncey, Jr., eds. Hidden from History
*Donald B. Gibson, “The Harlem Renaissance City: its Multi-Illusionary Dimension”, in Yoshinobu Hakutani and Robert Butler, eds., The City in African American Literature
Selections from the work of Aaron Douglas

Week Four: Moving on, Moving Up?

Richard Wright, Lawd Today
Selections from the work of Jacob Lawrence
*Selected Primary source materials in Arnesen, ed., Black Protest and the Great Migration
*Introduction, pp. 1-35 in Eric Arnesen, ed., Black Protest and the Great Migration

Week Five: Newness fades: Urban Myths, Urban Realities

*Selected chapters from Alice Childress, Like One of the Family
*Marita Bonner, “On Being Young – a Woman – and Colored” (1925); “Drab Rambles” (1926); “Nothing New” (1927); “Black Fronts” (1938); “The Whipping” (1939); “A Possible Triad on Black Notes” (1940); “One True Love” (1941);
*Chapter 6, “New Fallen Women: Black/White Prostitution”, in Mumford, Interzones

Close reading assignment due in class

Week Six: Easy Living, Hard Times

Dorothy West, The Living is Easy
*Article on black Bostonians, TBA

Week Seven: Moving on, Moving West

Chester Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go
*Chester Himes, “Lunching at the Ritzmore” (1942)

Midterm Examination

Week Eight: Literary Sociology in the Black Metropolis

Gwendolyn Brooks, Blacks.  Selected poems from A Street in Bronzeville and Annie Allen; Maud Martha
St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, Black Metropolis: a Study of Negro Life in a Northern City.
Richard Wright’s Introduction; Chapters 3-5; 8; 20-22; Appendix: “Bronzeville, 1961”
*Bill Mullen, Popular Fronts: Chicago and African American Cultural Politics, 1935-46.  Chapter 2, 4,5
*Carla Cappetti, Writing Chicago: Modernism, Ethnography and the Novel.  Chapter 1

Week Nine: Harlem, 116th Street

Ann Petry, The Street
Selections from the work of Romare Bearden

Final Paper Topic Due

Week Ten: Disappearing Acts: Urbanity and Invisibility

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Week Eleven: America and Other Spaces: The “Urban Renewal” of Black America

*James Baldwin, “The Transatlantic Commuter”
*William Gardner Smith, “Return to Black America”
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
*Thomas Pynchon, “A Journey Into the Mind of Watts” (1965)

Week Twelve: The Rhythms of City Life

Toni Morrison, Jazz

Week Thirteen: Futures, Past and Present

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower
*Wanda Coleman, selected poems, 1968-2000


© Rachel Rosekind, PhD, MLIS