AFRAM 214 A: Introduction African American Literature

Autumn 2023
TTh 2:30pm - 4:20pm / CHL 015
Section Type:
Joint Sections:
ENGL 258 A
Alys E Weinbaum
Syllabus Description (from Canvas):

AFRAM 214/ ENG 258

Fall 2023

Professor Alys Weinbaum

Meeting time: T/Th 2:30-4:20

Location:  CHL 015

My office: 408B Padelford Hall

Walk in office hours: T/Th 4:30-5:30

Zoom ID for office hours (by appointment only):  991 2097 3802    


          “The voices that denounced chattel slavery, that spoke to the promise of meaningful freedom, that voiced pleas for justice which made the constitution a living document, the promise of which  one day could be made real, have much to teach us.  But even more than this, these works speak to us beyond the narrow boundaries of race and nation.  They explore timeless values that guide us, reminding us of our responsibility to ourselves and others. 

            All Americans, indeed all freedom-loving people, should have exposure to and understanding of this body of work.  It reminds us of paths taken that should be avoided and paths not taken that may have yielded different futures.  It encourages us to learn the bitter truths of our history as well as the transcendent beauty and humanity of some of our responses to it.  This strikes me as especially urgent, now more than ever, when so many Americans appear ignorant of our history and of the importance of the democracy they claim to revere.”

--Farah Jasmine Griffin

Read Until You Understand:  The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature (2021)


Course description

This course explores the African American literary tradition—literary fiction and non-fiction,—from the mid-nineteenth century through to the contemporary moment. We will treat a range of genres and forms including essay, memoire, short story, poetry, and novel.  As we move through time, from nineteenth century slavery into the present moment, we will contextualize works historically.  We will consider each author’s moment of writing and the social and political forces impacting the writing process, and thus the production and dissemination of ideas.  We will consider how each work makes meaning of its moment and imagines the past, present and future.  We will pay special attention to the representation of relationships between national belonging and racial belonging in each text.  As we explore various responses to and critiques of American racial nationalism we will explore the gender, sexual, and class politics of each.  How are ideas of  “whiteness,” “Blackness” and “nation” elaborated, claimed, and/or rejected and to what end? How are ideas about history, memory, and community advanced by particular texts and/or challenged?  How is a better world imagined?  What are the complexities, pleasures and risks of Black world making?


Throughout the quarter, the following interlinked question-clusters will guide our inquiry:

  1. What is racial nationalism and how has it functioned at different points in U.S. history? How does African American literature provide a vantage point from which to understand and dismantle dominant or hegemonic understanding of the relationship between race and nation?
  2. How are questions about race and nation bound up with those about gender, sexuality, and class?How can we learn to read for intersectional relationships among and across identities, social formations, and experiences?
  3. How have processes of racialization, gendering, sexualization, economic dispossession and de/humanization been linked historically?How have linkages shifted across time—in other words how have these linkages been contested and reworked?
  4. How have ideas of Black literacy and African American literature been connected to ideas of freedom, citizenship, and political power?How has African American literature both illuminated and challenged these connections?  How have Black authors explored alternatives the dominant organization of power?  How have they articulated what historian Robin Kelley calls Black “freedom dreams”?
  5. How do African American writers and texts speak to each other across genre, form, space, and time?


Course learning goals

  • To become confident reading and understanding a range of complex literary texts.
  • To become confident discussing literary texts with clarity and nuance in large and small groups.
  • To write clearly and convincingly about the meaning of literary texts.
  • To develop an understanding of how African American literature makes meaning as it engages with a range of social, historical and political issues across time.
  • To understand how and why African American literature has been expressed in multiple genres and forms and how each text responds to those that have come before as each imagines the world differently.


Course requirements

This course is a collaborative endeavor. Thought it lecture sized, I will run the class more like a seminar and thus will provides ample space for group discussion and exchange each time we meet.  Discussions will happen in both large and small groups.

Because of the centrality of discussion to this course, success in it requires your active engagement with the assigned texts and with each other each time we meet. 

Please come to class prepared to discuss the day’s assigned readings. Our discussions and our interpretations of readings will emerge over time as we share ideas thoughtfully and respectfully.  Behavior or contributions that exhibit disrespect for texts, ideas, or members of this class, or that disrupt discussion and learning will not be tolerated.


Active participation

Each class session you are be expected to bring at least one question about the assigned readings to class, and to be prepared to raise and discuss this question with others.  Ideally you will have sketched out your questions in your notebook prior to class so that you are ready to share it.


Written responses to readings

You will submit either 4 or 5 written responses to course readings and our in class discussion about them (the number of responses you submit will depend on the grade desired).  Each response must be 3 double spaced pages in length. Therefore, in addition to the mid-term each student will generate 15 pages of written work.  You can choose which 4 responses you submit, though everyone must turn in response #1 in due week 2.

Each written response must highlight a specific issue or question we have discussed in class in relation to the text in question.  It should describe this issue or question in some detail based on your recall of (and your notes on) our class discussion.  It should then turn to a specific passage or detail from the readings and explore how it allows you respond to or further meditate on the question you have highlighted.  This may be a passage we already discussed or it may be a new one.  If the former, you need to develop ideas about it that substantially expand on or complicate what has already been said in class.  (For more ideas about how to generate written responses see below.)

Include parenthetical page numbers from the text(s) you are citing.  Avoid long quotations; instead, quote salient bits (2-3 lines max) and assume I can locate the rest.

Each response is worth up to 10% of your grade.  The point is to do all responses carefully, thoughtfully, and in a manner that demonstrates both your understanding of ongoing class discussion and your ability to extend our discussion on your own terms. 

All response must be carefully written, edited, and proof read.  

All responses must be submitted on time according to the schedule of due dates below. 

Late or missed responses will receive no credit; simply move on to the next response.

Responses that do not demonstrate significant engagement with class discussion will not receive full credit. 

If I suspect that you have used Chat GPT or have in some other way plagiarized (see below), the response in question will receive a 0 grade.

Responses are due on Fridays at 12 noon.  Consult the schedule below for specific due dates. 



Preparedness for class and active in-class participation (20%)

Midterm exams (40%)

Complete set of 4 responses (40%)

Response will be read as a complete set at the end of the quarter.  If you wish to receive detailed feedback on a particular response or learn what grade range you are currently working in, please schedule a meeting with me during office hours.

All those who receive a grade of at least a B- on the midterm, are regularly prepared for and participates in class discussion, and complete 4 responses on time, will receive a grade in the B- to B+ range (A numerical grade of 2.5-3.4)

Everyone who wishes to receive a grade above 3.4 must score at least B+ on the midterm, demonstrate not only prepared, regular, and consistent but also careful and thoughtful participation in class discussion, and must complete a total of 5 responses.  (Grades of 3.5-4.0).

If you do not complete all of the written work for this class on time (inclusive of the midterm), you will receive a grade lower than B- (2.5-2.8).  If you need special accommodation for the midterm, please discuss this with me at least two weeks prior to the in-class exam.     


Required texts

My preferred editions of all required texts are available for purchase at the University Bookstore.  All texts are also available in numerous editions new and used, and through the University of Washington Library system. 

Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Nella Larsen, Passing

Toni Morrison, A Mercy

Rankin, Citizen:  An American Lyric

All other course readings are available as PDFs on Canvas as under “files”. 

Please print out all readings and bring hard copies to class for in class use.  Failure to regularly bring readings to class will result in being marked down for participation.


Schedule of readings and assignments

Note: This schedule is subject to change as the course continues.  Changes will be announced in class and through Canvas.  It is your responsibility to stay abreast of all changes.  It is strongly suggested that you check class announcements daily.


Unit 1. Race and Nation

Week 1  

Thursday September 28

Introduction to the course

Read prior to the first class meeting:  Nikole Hannah-Jones, "Democracy" from The 1619 Project:  A New Origin Story

Week 2

Tuesday October 3

Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (1852)


Unit 2. Slavery and its afterlife

Thursday October 5

No class meeting

Start reading Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)

We will read roughly 200 pages by next Thursday.  See below for details and get started now!

Supplementary readings

“Introduction” to the Norton edition of the text

Tiya Miles, “Dispossession” from The 1619 Project

First response due Friday October 6, at noon

The first response must treat one or two readings done prior to the date it is due.  All subsequent responses may treat readings done since the due date for the previous response and up until the due date of the present response.

Week 3

Tuesday October 10

Jacobs, Incidents, Preface by the author, Introduction, and Chapters, I-XVII

Thursday October 12

Incidents, Chapters XXI-XLI

Week 4

Tuesday October 17

W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), “The Forethought” and Chapters I, II, IV,VI

Thursday October 19

Souls, chapters X, XI, XIII, XIV and “The After-Thought”

Supplementary readings:  Wesley Morris, “Music” from The 1619 Project

Second response due Friday at noon


Unit 3. The Harlem Renaissance and “The New Negro”

Week 5

Tuesday October 24


Thursday October 26

W. E. B. Du Bois, "Criteria for Negro Art"

Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”

Alain Locke, “The New Negro”

Zora Neale Hurston, “How it Feels to be Colored Me”

Supplementary reading

Dorothy Roberts, “Race” from The 1619 Project

Week 6

Tuesday October 31

 In class review for the midterm

Bring your questions and be sure to contribute to discussion post streams by Monday Oct 31st.

Thursday November 2

In class midterm exam


(They may be purchased at the University Bookstore)       

Week 7 

Tuesday November 7

Nella Larsen, Passing, to Part II (or to "Re-Encounter")

Thursday November 9

Nella Larsen, Passing, completed

Third response due Friday at noon--must be on Larsen 


Unit 4.  History of the present and/as Black poetics

Week 8

Tuesday November 14

Toni Morrison, A Mercy to page 50

Thursday November 16

Morrison to page 117

View Morrison’s interview with Lynn Neary on A Mercy,

Week 9

Tuesday November 21

Independent viewing of the film Toni Morrison:  The Pieces I Am (available on Netflix and through the UW Library)

Thursday November 23

Thanksgiving break

Fourth response due Friday at noon--Must be on Morrison

Week 10

Tuesday November 28

Toni Morrison, A Mercy completed

Thursday November 30

Claudia Rankine, Citizen:  An American Lyric  to page 36 

Week 11

Tuesday December 5

Rankine to page 135

Thursday December 7

Rankine completed

Supplementary reading

Alexandra Schwartz, “On Being Seen: An Interview with Claudia Rankin from Ferguson” 

Fifth response due Friday at noon--Must be on Rankine


Sixth response for extra credit.  This extra credit response is due on Monday at noon.  

Please See assignment page for prompt.



  • Arrive on time and to stay until the end of class.
  • Let me know before class begins if you will need to leave early.
  • Do not use electronics of any kind during class. This includes phones and laptops.
  • Keep a dedicated notebook for this course and bring it to each meeting.
  • The syllabus is subject to change at my discretion.
  • It is your responsibility to regularly check your UW email and Canvas announcements for schedule updates and other information regarding this class.
  • Should you miss a class, it is your responsibility to keep on top of what has taken place in your absence by checking in with a classmate. If you miss more than two classes in a row please check in with me upon your return.
  • If you will be absent, as a curtesy please send me an email letting me know.

Recommendations for success

  • Complete all readings BEFORE the meeting in which they are to be discussed.
  • Do not attempt to complete readings in one sitting. Break readings up by doing 45 minutes—1 hour at a time. This requires planning. The payoff: you will understand more and do better in this course!
  • You are expected to TAKE NOTES as you read and to mark interesting passages so that you can locate them readily in class and return to them when writing your responses.
  • Do not skip class because of incomplete reading. It is always better to come and listen to our discussion so that it informs your make up reading.
  • Set aside ample time for written work. Start writing in well in advance of the deadline so that you have time to ponder, and, if needed, to consult peers or myself for help.
  • Be proactive. Come to office hours and check in, especially if you are struggling to understand lecture, discussion, readings, or to keep up with written work.
  • Know what plagiarism is and do NOT do it.



One of the most common forms of cheating is plagiarism, using another's words or ideas without proper citation.  The UW guidelines that define plagiarism apply to information gleaned from websites or generated by AI such as ChatGPT. The key to avoiding plagiarism is to show clearly where your own thinking ends and someone else's begins. Should you have consulted outside sources (written or recorded), should you have used search engines or AI (such as ChatGPT) to generate writing, or should you have used online or print sources to spark ideas or formulations, you must specify precisely where ideas, information and/or the text you submit was obtained at the time you turn in your written work.  This can be in the form of footnotes or a bibliography.

In this class, use of ChatGPT in preparation of written work is not allowed. 

Assignments that include this or any other form of plagiarism will receive no grade and cannot be made up.  Written work that contains plagiarism, however minor, will be reported to the College of Arts and Sciences.

More information on plagiarism


Tips on preparing for class discussion and for writing responses

  1. Read carefully and make marginal notes as you go.Underline important passages AND jot down ideas and/or questions in the margin as they arise.
  2. Examine your marginal notes after completing the reading and write ideas in your notebook for use in class and in writing responses.
  3. What are some of the main ideas addressed in this text?Summarize 3-5 of these ideas in your notebook BEFORE coming to class or sitting down to write.


Approaches to generating written responses

Over the quarter try out different approaches to writing responses.  Everyone should try out at least three approaches—admittedly these will overlap.

1. Questions about new ideas

This kind of response focuses on a new and/or perplexing idea that arose in class.  What stood out to you as something you had not thought about prior? First describe this idea, then explain what was interesting, important, or consequential about it in relation to a specific passage from the text in question.

2. Questions about argument

If you think you have understood an author’s overall argument (and thus its various parts), give a précis in a paragraph or two.  Then, raise a question about the argument or a part of it that connects it to our class discussion. What do you want to take away from this argument for future use or contemplation and why?  Alternatively, are there aspects of the argument that are counter-intuitive or contradictory?  Carefully identify and explain these contradictions or trouble spots and explain how and why they are instructive or illuminating for you.

3. Questions about politics

What is at stake for the author in writing this text?  What’s the text’s principal political purpose?  Who is the implied audience? What impact is this text meant to have on this audience?  What is your response to this text’s political project?  How does this text speak to our discussions in class and in what ways?  How does this text speak to you personally?

4. Questions about form and style

Can you discern a relationship between the form in which an argument is made and its meaning?  How does the form of the text (polemic, poem, lecture, fiction etc...) either capture, embody, or enhance its meaning? What sort of stylistic choices (dialect, language, syntax etc…) has the author made?  How have these authorial choices informed or shaped our class discussion of this text?  How have these choices impacted you as a reader?

5. Setting a text to work in the world

If our discussion of a text feels directly relevant to something that is going on in y/our world, explain the connection fully.  Then pull out a specific passage from the text that resonates for you and describe how and why.  How exactly has this passage allowed you to think about y/our world in a new or different way? 

6. Comparative questions

If you feel you have a firm grasp on two texts and an idea about how they resonate, place them into “dialogue.”  A comparative response focuses on overlaps and differences, on how one text builds upon, supplements, comments upon, or reveals gaps in the other.  If two texts resonate in interesting ways explain how so. If two texts seem at odds, explore the tension.  Explore relationships between texts that we have and have not taken up in class that seem significant to you and explain why.


Other useful information

Americans with Disability Act

If you require an accommodation for a disability, please come see me during office hours within the first two weeks of the quarter to work out the details of your accommodation.  If possible, bring a "gold form" with you to our meeting or have one sent to me prior. 

Religious Accommodation

Washington state law requires that UW develop a policy for accommodation of student absences or significant hardship due to reasons of faith or conscience, or for organized religious activities. The UW’s policy, including more information about how to request an accommodation, is available at ReligiousAccommodations Policy ( Accommodations must be requested within the first two weeks of this course using the Religious Accommodations Request form (


The grade scale for this course follows the University of Washington numerical grading system.








































60-61% (Lowest passing grade.)

0.0   Academic failure. No credit earned.







Catalog Description:
Introduction to various genres of African American literature from its beginnings to the present. Emphasizes the cultural and historical context of African American literary expression and its aesthetics criteria. Explores key issues and debates, such as race and racism, inequality, literary form, and canonical acceptance. Offered: jointly with ENGL 258.
GE Requirements Met:
Diversity (DIV)
Arts and Humanities (A&H)
Last updated:
July 11, 2024 - 2:56 am