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English 57: Race and Ethnicity in American Literature and Culture

The Subject(s):

This is a course on literature and culture in modern and postmodern America. Our approach to this cultural field is through, and by, the subjects of race and ethnicity. I think of this term “subject” in both the sense of a focus of study and as referring to a person under the authority of, or constituted by, an ideology. In this sense, we will be studying literary and cultural works (and a range of criticism) as a means of glimpsing our own relationship to the “subjects” of race and ethnicity, and thus, understanding our own subjectivity (with special attention to what is invisible, unspoken, and assumed). I will argue, from the start, that race, as it is conceived and practiced in American culture, is a fiction. What I mean by this is that, “race” is not a material and transcendent fact, but rather a story. When I say, “race is a fiction,” I am challenging our assumptions about its permanence and coherence as a set of explanatory claims about humanity and human depth. As a scholar of literature, I do not believe that fiction and stories are trivial. We encounter the world through language and live in a world of stories. We read the world through these stories. They define us. In this sense, race is a fiction, but it is also very real. Hence, we can see, from the start, that we are confronted with a fundamental irony. As scholars of literature and culture, we will use this sense of irony and a critical awareness of the way these fictions create subjects to explore a broad range of material. We will read novels, short stories, and essays ranging from Nella Larsen’s Passing to Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech; we will watch films and listen to music, including American History X and Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, and we will read selections of significant critical theory and commentary.