Minority literatures in the US - Université Bordeaux Montaigne

Minority literatures in the US

Crédits ECTS : 6

Volume horaire CM : 12

Volume horaire TD : 12

Effectif maximal : 25

Code ELP : MIA1Y12

Composante : UFR Langues et Civilisations

Période de l'année : Automne

Formes d'enseignement : Non accessible à distance


This seminar will provide students with an introduction to Afro-American literature and criticism. The aim is to bring out some of the characteristic features of this unique form of literature, telling an American story darkly different from that told in mainstream works, while addressing and raising complex, specific issues, thematically and scripturally. Afro-American literature was born from specific historical circumstances which shaped it into a specific, remarkable “form of cultural expression” (Houston Baker), and we shall look at it precisely as such: a form of cultural expression, related to other forms of cultural expressions (notably folklore, music –jazz and the blues, and story-telling. As a point of method, then, the seminar will look at literature as part of a broader field of cultural production, involved in a symbolic power struggle: Afro American literature cannot indeed be disconnected from Afro American art, music, folklore, verbal games, any more than it can be released from the historical burden which the history of slavery then racial segregation placed on the artists’ shoulders. Because the compressed format of the seminar does not allow appropriate space to look into the incredible wealth of Afro-American literary production, we will focus on just four emblematic works, which are also representative of important historical and artistic moments, and will help us identify some of the characteristic features of Afro American literature, and some of the notions Afro-American critics have devised to describe them.
We will thus devote time and attention to the slave narratives, which are the founding texts in an Afro-American literary tradition which pays tribute, again and again, to these foundations. Fredrick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) stands in this respect as the prototypical slave narrative and we shall use it as such – indeed, it will provide us with clear insight, from the outset, into some of the themes which later prove constitutive of Afro-American literature: the idea of a link between writing, identity and power, the problem of double consciousness and double discourse, the trope of irony, the tension between testifying and playing, the dialectics of truth and deceit. In order to get a better perspective on these foundations, we will mention a famous female slave narrative, Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. … Then we shall turn to the first truly, explicitly « double-voiced » « speakerly text » (Henry Louis Gates) in Afro-American fiction: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1938), written at the end of the Harlem renaissance. In contrast with Douglass’s narrative, which has been described as a « narrative of ascent » (Robert Stepto) relating the conquest of literacy to the conquest of freedom, Hurston’s novel can be viewed as a « narrative of immersion » into the vernacular culture : the two types of texts, inscribed in two (very) different historical and cultural moments, point to radically alternative cultural strategies. Also, Hurston’s novel will invite us to look at an important (if not the most important) theme in Afro-American literature –identity—beyond the strict and restrictive parameters of race: indeed, Hurston’s novel looks at issues of Gender as just as important, if not more. As we move along, we shall see how some of the themes which can be identified as central in that literature –literacy, identity, motion, speech are revisited in a modernist novel, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), which rearranges these themes from a decidedly playful existential perspective, looking at how each accepted truth or norm can be subverted, not to say inverted. In the process, of course, many of the key critical notions that have just been used –double-consciousness, double-discourse, double-voicing, speakerly text, signifying, ascent and immersion narratives, will be clarified, as will, to begin with, some critical tools and issues Afro-American literary criticism is working with. Last, we shall turn to a novel by Toni Morrison not as well-known as her masterpiece, Beloved : an early –and her third– novel, Song of Solomon, another narrative of re-rooting in which all of these notions –literacy, identity, motion, imagination, tradition–are put to work again.


Required reading :
Frederick DOUGLASS & Harriet JACOBS: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) & Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1862), Modern Library, 2004.

Zora Neale HURSTON: Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937. Perennial, 2003.
Ralph ELLISON: Invisible Man. Edition disponible.
Toni MORRISON: Song of Solomon. Edition disponible.

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