HENB01482U English - Elective Subject, topic 2: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond: Representations of Blackness in American Literature and Culture

Volume 2021/2022



This elective considers twentieth- and twenty-first African American life and culture by focusing on the Harlem Renaissance, and representations and constructions of the Black body. Accordingly, the teaching of the course will proceed via two subthemes:

  1. “Reading” the American Body (Jon Ward)
  2. The Literature and Culture of the Harlem Renaissance (Martyn Bone)


“Reading” the American Body

Course Description: The body provides an ideal “way in” (or indeed, “way out”) to thinking about the ways in which subjectivity, history, narrative, and identity, function in American culture. In this module, each week we will take as our point of departure specific cultural constructions of the Black body, and we will look at the ways in which these cultural texts reveal and/or obfuscate embodied experiences, and the ways in which these experiences are implicated within American culture more broadly. This course takes an interdisciplinary approach and examines a range of cultural texts, including literature, film, and photography, and will work to contextualize each week’s text(s) in terms of cultural history, and investigate these texts using a variety of theoretical approaches.


Educational Aims: This course will provide students with a number of methodological and theoretical approaches to understanding how the Black body intersects with language, identity, history, performance, narrative, and its relation to US culture and nationhood. By the end of the course, students will understand a variety of corporeal discourses, and will be able to analyses cultural depictions of the body. Students will discuss the ways the body has been imagined, represented, and theorized in contemporary culture, and will develop critical and theoretical thinking.


Learning Outcomes:

  1. Articulate key issues pertaining to the Black body in American culture, such as race, gender, sexuality, and citizenship.
  2. Examine key scholarly discussions of the Black body in American culture, such as performativity, biopolitics, intersectionality, and the gaze.
  3. Contextualise contemporary American culture within a wider social, political and economic framework, both national and transnational.
  4. Communicate reading and research effectively, through seminar presentations and discussion
  5. Develop and sustain an argument, drawing on appropriate resources.
  6. Analyse literary, historical, and cultural texts within an interdisciplinary framework


Indicative Seminar Programme and Primary Reading (to be confirmed at a later date):

The course will be broken down into thematic blocks, which will alert students to potential ways of (un)thinking the body, but these themes will offer intellectual considerations and connections throughout the entirety of the course. These will be as follows:


The Embodied Nation/the Nationalized Body

  1. The “American” body: Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)
  2. The “American” body: Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)


The Gaze

  1. The objectified body: Robert Mapplethorpe, The Black Book (1986)
  2. The surveilled body: Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad (2016)
  3. The surveilled body: Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad (2016)
  4. The passing body: Nella Larsen, Passing (1929)


Intimate (Dis)Connections

  1. The (un)desirable body: Danez Smith, Don’t Call Us Dead (2017) – selected poems
  2. The domestic body: Kathryn Stockett, The Help (2009)
  3. The domestic body: Kathryn Stockett, The Help (2009)


Corporeal Categorization

  1. The performative body: Jennie Livingston (dir.) Paris is Burning (1992)
  2. The indefinable body: Boots Riley (dir.) Sorry to Bother You (2018)



  1. The future body: Octavia Butler, Kindred (1979)
  2. The future body: Octavia Butler, Kindred (1979)
  3. The forgotten body: Cheryl Dunye (dir.) The Watermelon Woman (1996)


Indicative Secondary Reading List (to be confirmed at a later date):

  • Danto, Arthur C. Playing With the Edge: the Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe Berkeley & London: University of California Press, 1996; Golden, Thelma. Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art New York: Whitney Museum of Contemporary Art, 1994 [extracts]
  • Julia Kristeva, Approaching Abjection, Powers of Horror, New York:  Columbia University Press, 1982, pp: 1 – 31.
  • E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson, ‘Introduction: Queering Black Studies/“Quaring” Queer Studies’, in Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology, pp. 1-18
  • Patricia Hill Collins. “Mammies, Matriarchs, and Other Controlling Images.” In Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. London: Routledge, 2002: 67-90.
  • Harris, Keith M. “The Burden of the Beautiful Beast: Visualization and the Black Male Body” in Mia Mask (ed.) Contemporary Black American Cinema: Race, Gender and Sexuality at the Movies. New York & London: Routledge, 2012. Pp. 40-55.
  • “Bodies that (Don’t) Matter: Regulating Race on the Toilet in Kathryn Stockett’s The Help” Christopher Lloyd Studies in American Fiction, Volume 43, Issue 2, Fall 2016, pp. 259-275. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/640081/pdf
  • Elkins, James. The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing New York & London: Simon & Schuster, 1996. [extracts]
  • Ytasha L. Womack, ‘Evolution of a Space Cadet’, in Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (2013), pp. 3-24
  • bell hooks Reel to Real: Race, Sex and Class at the Movies New York & London: Routledge, 1996. [extracts]
  • Gabrille McIntire. “Towards a Narratology of Passing: Epistemology, Race, and Misrecognition in Nella Larsen’s Passing” in Callaloo, Summer 2012, Vol. 35(3), pp.778-794; Margaret Gillespie. “Gender, Race and Space in Nella Larsen’s Passing” in Journal of Research in Gender Studies, 2015, Vol.5(2), pp. 279-291.
  • Matt Richardson. The Queer Limit of Black Memory: Black Lesbian Literature and Irresolution. Ohio State University Press, 2013. (Introduction)
  • Gregory J. Hampton, “Kindred: History, Revision, and (Re)memory of Bodies” in Hampton, Changing bodies in the fiction of Octavia Butler: Slaves, aliens, and vampires, 2010.



Literature and Culture of the Harlem Renaissance

This part of the course will focus on the literature of the so-called “New Negro Renaissance” or “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s and 1930s. During this period, the New York neighborhood of Harlem emerged as both a vibrant center of African American life (in the famous black folk saying of the period, “I’d rather be a lamppost in Harlem than the governor of Georgia”) and the locus for a loose and eclectic movement of black writers and intellectuals (as well as musicians and artists). The Renaissance included established figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson, but was especially notable for the emergence of “the younger generation” to whom Alain Locke dedicated the landmark volume The New Negro (1925). In literature, these emerging voices included Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Claude McKay, and George Schuyler.


Throughout the course, we will read a range of primary and critical texts in order to consider a variety of themes:

  • the role of “race” in modern (urban) U.S. life, including “passing,” black-white relationships, and sexual relationships;
  • debates over different approaches to “Negro Art” and the issue of how to depict African American life;
  • the relationship between modernism and the Harlem Renaissance; 
  • the role of white writers and patrons in the Harlem Renaissance;  
  • the relationship between the Harlem Renaissance and the “Great Migration” of African Americans from the U.S. South (as well as blacks from the Caribbean);
  • the transnational dimensions of the Harlem Renaissance: i.e., the Caribbean background of key figures in the Harlem Renaissance; Nella Larsen’s relationship to Denmark; cultural and political solidarity with colored peoples within and beyond the U.S.
  • literary representations of--and relationships to--other African American cultural formations during the Renaissance, especially music (jazz and blues)


Course texts may include (TBC):

  • Alain Locke, ed., The New Negro (1925)
  • James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912, 1927)
  • Claude McKay, Home to Harlem (1928)
  • Nella Larsen, Quicksand (1928)
  • George Schuyler, Black No More (1931)
  • Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
  • George Hutchinson, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Harlem Renaissance (2007)
  • Category
  • Hours
  • Class Instruction
  • 84
  • Preparation
  • 325,5
  • Total
  • 409,5
Continuous feedback during the course of the semester
Feedback by final exam (In addition to the grade)
Type of assessment
Criteria for exam assesment