AFRAM 318 A: Black Literary Genres

Meeting Time: 
TTh 12:30pm - 2:20pm
THO 125
Sonnet Retman

Syllabus Description:

Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke:

Black Satire in the Age of Generation O

Fall 2014


Professor Retman

Office: Padelford A514; office hours, Thursdays, 11:00-12:00 and by appointment

T/ Th 12:30-2:20, Thompson 125


Some people laugh to keep from crying.  As a minstrel performer in Wesley Brown’s novel Dark Town Strutters puts it, “I laugh to keep from killing.”  These observations illuminate a powerful vector of black cultural production in the United States--the tradition of African American satire. In this class, we will explore the contours of African American satire, turning to some of its landmark literary and cultural texts, including novels, essays, plays, films, sketch comedy, and popular music, from the 20th century to the present day.  All of the artists we will explore this quarter have contributed to the evolution of a specifically African American oeuvre of satire, one that crosses genres, audiences and historical epochs. Though this is a long, rich tradition, we will focus on the burgeoning movement of post-Civil Rights black satire.  We will examine the ways that satire shapes history and works on/ as cultural memory.  We will consider the following questions:  How do particular satirical practices work aesthetically and politically?  What cultural tropes and modes do these texts put into play?   What is the relationship between subversive black comedy and its audience(s)?  


Learning Goals:

  • Improve your ability to read, analyze, and discuss literary and cultural texts
  • Further develop your writing skills, especially your ability to state your ideas in a succinct, coherent manner and support them with close textual readings
  • Understand the broader social, historical and cultural contexts in which black literary and cultural production have evolved
  • Assess the impact of African American cultural production on artistic and intellectual movements of the past and the present
  • Enhance your sense of the multiple ways in which art can work as a tool for social change


Required Texts:

George Schuyler, Black No More (1931)

Fran Ross, Oreo (1974)

Ishmael Reed, Flight to Canada (1976)

Lynn Nottage, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark (2013)

Lisa B. Thompson, Single Black Female (2012)

Percival Everett, I Am Not Sydney Poitier (2009)

*PDFs will be made available on the class canvas site.


Class Schedule


Th, 9/25           Introduction


Week 1           Undercover Brothers and Sisters: Passing, Infiltration and other Dramas and Traumas of the Colorline

T, 9/30             PDFs on canvas site: Glenda Carpio “Introduction,” 3-28, Laughing Fit to Kill (2008); Mel Watkins, “Prologue: Black Humor . . . what it is,” On the Real Side (1994), 16-41; Paul Beatty, “Black Humor” (2006)


Th, 10/2           No class


Week 2

T, 10/7             George Schuyler, Black No More (1931), 1-90; selections from SNL: The Best of Eddie Murphy, The Best of the Chris Rock Show (in-class film clips)


Th, 10/9           Black No More, cont.; The Best of Chapelle’s Show, Season 1 (2003) (in-class film clip); Quiz #1


Week 3

T, 10/14           Fran Ross, Oreo (1976) read Part One: Troezen; “Baad Assssss Cinema” and “Undercover Brother” (in-class film clips)

Th, 10/16         Oreo, cont; Quiz #2


Week 4           Bi-Centennial Memories: Satire and Slavery

T, 10/21           Skin Game (1971), in-class screening


Th, 10/23         film discussion


Week 5

T, 10/28           Ishmael Reed, Flight to Canada (1976), 1-60; Richard Pryor “Bicentennial Nigger,” in-class audio


Th, 10/30         Flight to Canada, cont.; Richard Pryor “Prison Play,” in-class audio; Quiz #3


Week 6           No Business Like Show Business: Race, Masquerade and Performance

T, 11/4             Lynn Nottage, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark (2013); Quiz #4


Th, 11/6           Moms Mabley: I Got Something to Tell You (2013), in-class screening


***Mid-term Paper due Friday, 11/7, by 3:30 in Ellen Palms’ office, B505 Padelford


Week 7

T, 11/11           Veteran’s Day, no class.


Th, 11/13         PDFs on canvas site: Darryl Dickson-Carr “The Satirical Interview”; Derek C. Maus, “ ‘Mommy, What’s a Post-Soul Satirist?’: An Introduction,” 1-18 (2014);

The Richard Pryor Special? (1977), in-class screening; Quiz #5


Week 8           Social Mobility in the Post-Soul Era: The Only One and More

T, 11/18           Percival Everett, I Am Not Sydney Poitier (2009)


Th, 11/20         I Am Not Sydney Poitier, cont.; Quiz #6


Week 9

T, 11/25           Lisa B. Thompson, Single Black Female (2012); Issa Rae’s “Awkward Black Girl” (in-class screening)


Th, 11/27         Thanksgiving break, no class.


Week 10

T, 12/2             PDFs on canvas site: Danzy Senna, “The Admission” and other stories from You Are Free (2011); Quiz #7


Th, 12/4           PDFs on canvas site: ZZ Packer, “Brownies” (2003) and Colson Whitehead, “The Gangsters” (2008)


***Final Paper due Monday, Dec. 8, by 3:30 in Ellen Palms’ office B505 Padelford



Quizzes (7 total—the lowest grade dropped)                                       20%

Group Presentation                                                                             10%

Mid-term Paper (4-5 pages)                                                                30%

Final paper (8-10 pages)                                                                     40%


This class requires active engagement with the texts and with each other: come to class prepared to talk about the day's readings.  Our interpretations of the texts will emerge through a pooling of responses and ideas. 


You will be held accountable for coming to class prepared and ready to participate.  Over the quarter, you will take 7 quizzes that ask you to identify and explicate key passages from the day’s readings.  I will drop the lowest grade.  You will also write two papers.  The final paper will ask you to consult secondary critical sources from the library.  You will also work with a group of students on a 10 minute presentation to facilitate class discussion about the day’s readings.  You will evaluate your group’s performance in terms of individual effort, including your own.  You will receive handouts outlining the expectations for your group presentation, quizzes and your written work.  This course follows the University of Washington numerical grading system, from 4.0, the highest possible grade, to 0.7, the lowest possible passing grade.


Keys to Succeeding in Class:

1)    Attend class and participate actively.  When I ask you to complete informal writing assignments in class to share with others or to work in small groups, use that time to engage with key course concepts and questions and to form a rigorous and respectful learning community. 

2)    Complete the reading before class.  If you don’t do the reading before class, it will be difficult for you to follow class discussion and contribute effectively. 

3)    Take notes during class meetings and mark interesting passages as you read.  This will help you participate in class and prepare for quizzes, presentations and papers.  Make sure to bring your course texts to class on the days when they are assigned.

4)    Don’t try to complete each day’s reading in one sitting.  Break it up into two or three sections that you read 45 minutes or one hour at a time.  This requires advance planning, but you’ll understand more and do better in the course as a result. 

5)    Spend time writing your papers and carefully revise them.  Consult with me for individual feedback and advice.  Start writing your papers well enough in advance so that you have time to show drafts to others and to revise them in light of feedback.

6)    Meet with me over the course of the quarter to check in about work strategies.


Class Policies:

  • Arrive on time and stay until the end of class to avoid disrupting discussion.
  • No open electronics during lecture, including lap tops, phones, and iPads and iPods, unless you receive permission from me. 
  • Plan to take notes with pen/pencil and paper.  If you feel that you cannot function without a laptop, ask permission from me to use it in class
  • If you receive permission to use a laptop in class, it must be closed during discussion.  No exceptions.  If anyone violates these classroom expectations, there will be a ban on the further use of laptops for all students during our class meetings
  • There will be no make-up quizzes.  With other assignments, for every day past the due date, the grade drops .3 (for example, work that merited a 3.0 handed in one day late would drop to a 2.7). 
  • No assigned work will be accepted over e-mail or on disk.  You are responsible for keeping a duplicate, hard copy of your work in case it is lost.
  • The syllabus is subject to change at my discretion. 



"One of the most common forms of cheating is plagiarism, using another's words or ideas without proper citation . . . . The guidelines that define plagiarism also apply to information secured on internet websites. Internet references must specify precisely where the information was obtained and where it can be found . . . . The key to avoiding plagiarism is that you show clearly where your own thinking ends and someone else's begins" (  For further explanation of university policy about what constitutes academic misconduct, please consult the cited website.  If you are at all confused about how to properly cite your sources, contact me and we'll document them together.


Americans with Disability Act:  If you require course adaptations or accommodation because of a disability, if you have emergency information to share with me, or if you need special arrangements in case the building must be evacuated, please consult with me as soon as possible. 


Catalog Description: 
Considers how generic forms have been discussed, distributed, and valued in the larger context of African American, or other African-Diasporic literary studies. Explores how black writers and artists treat the terms and conventions of generic forms in response, and comparison, to their cultural treatment of others. Offered: jointly with ENGL 318; AWSp.
GE Requirements: 
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Other Requirements Met: 
Last updated: 
December 7, 2017 - 4:01pm