African-American Autobiography and Fiction

English 347

Fall, 2001

“Then it dawned on me with a certain suddeness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.”

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

“It had been my accidental reading of fiction and literary criticism that had evoked in me vague glimpses of life’s possibilities.”

          Richard Wright, Black Boy

“Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”

          Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Course Description

This is a course in American literature of the 19th and 20th centuries. We will read, discuss, and write about African-American autobiographies and fiction, beginning with slave narratives written before the Civil War and ending with contemporary autobiographies, short fiction and recent novels.

Course goals:

1. to understand genre distinctions between autobiography and fiction pertinent to our study of authorship, audience, narrative design, and literary history in African-American literature;

2. to understand ways in which experience is signified through memory and imagination--selectively, designedly--and in particular to explore distinctive characteristics and contributions of African-American autobiography to American culture;

3. to keep always before us definition and redefinition of key concept words like: selfhood, voice, identity, audience, history, community, posterity; to use these words to ground our analysis of thematic development and change in African-American narrative;

4. to pay particular attention to the ways in which contemporary African-American fiction writers have processed autobiography in their "historical" fictions.



A. Autobiography

A student packet of materials will include autobiographical selections from Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass. Three Negro Classics contains the autobiography of Booker T. Washington (Up From Slavery), and W.E.B. Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folks. We will also read together Black Boy by Richard Wright. In addition each student will be asked to select for reading and report an autobiography from the list provided below:

James Weldon Johnson, Along this Way

Ida B. Wells, Autobiography

Claude McKay, A Long Way from Home

Langston Hughes, The Big Sea

Anna Cooper, A Voice from the South

Ann Moody, Coming of Age

James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

                     Malcolm X and A. Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X 

Claude Brown,   Manchild in the Promised Land

Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice

John Wideman,  Brothers and Keepers

                     Audre Lourde,   Zami

                     Estella Conwill Majozo, Come out the Wilderness

        B. Fiction       

1. Excerpts from Clotel, William Wells Brown (handout)

2. The Autobiography of An Ex-Coloured Man James Weldon Johnson, Three Negro Classics.

3. Home to Harlem, Claude McKay

          5. Invisible Man Ralph Ellison

6. Meridian Alice Walker

7. The Chaneyville Incident David Bradley

8. Beloved Toni Morrison

Recommended films: The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman; Native Son; Beloved.

We will try to find time to watch pertinent author interviews from the African-American writers series the library owns.


Course Expectations

1. A chapter of your autobiography and subsequently, an analytical and evaluative essay on your chapter of autobiography.

2. A course journal dedicated to study questions. Journals will be handled electronically. Weekly entries expected through e-mail. See attached description for more on the journal.

3. Class presentation: African-American autobiography (see list above and attached description of the assignment).

4. Midterm and final examinations: identify and signify passages from text; write extended definitions of key terms; write short synthetic essays.



All written assignments are due on the dates assigned. Late one day, the work is docked a half grade; late two days a full grade. More than two days late, the assignment is marked as “O.”

Autobiography and critique-------------25%


Class presentation------------------------10%


Class participation------------------------10%



8/28              Introduction to Course. Article discussion: Mellix. Handout: Griffin article.


8/30              Introduction to Course. Discussion: Griffin article. Handout: excerpts from Douglas’s and Jacob’s narratives.


9/4                Discussion of Douglass and Jacobs excerpts. Anatomy of the slave narrative (James Olney). Discussion of excerpts from Washington’s autobiography Up from Slavery. Handout: excerpts from William Wells Brown’s slave narrative and from his novel, Clotel.


9/6                Lecture/discussion: the slave narrative and William Wells Brown’s Clotel. Discussion of assignment: reading, analyzing and reporting on African-American autobiographies.


9/11              Student choices for presentation of an African-American autobiography. Discuss Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (excerpts)


9/13              Begin discussion of James Weldon Johnson’s novel Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.


9/18              Discussion of Ex-Coloured Man. Instructor presentation of Johnson’s autobiography: Along the Way.


9/20              Discussion of second assignment: writing a chapter in your own autobiography. Modeling autobiographies.

 9/25              Discussion of the novel Home to Harlem Claude McKay


9/27              Discussion of Home to Harlem. (Students’ presentation: Long Way From Home)


10/2              Begin discussion of Wright’s Black Boy.


10/4              Discussion of Black Boy


10/9              Discussion of Black Boy


10/11            Discussion of Wright’s short fiction


10/18            Midterm examination


10/23            Begin discussion of Invisible Man


10/25            Discussion of Invisible Man


10/30            Discussion of Invisible Man


11/1              Discussion of Invisible Man (Student presentations on autobiographies by Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Claude Brown, Eldridge Cleaver)


11/6             Begin discussion of Walker’s Meridian


11/8              Discussion of Alice Walker’s Meridian (Students’ presentations of Ann Moody’s Coming of Age)


11/13            Begin discussion of David Bradley’s The Chaneyville Incident


11/15            Discussion of David Bradley’s The Chaneyville Incident                 


11/20            Discussion of David Bradley’s The Chaneyville Incident


11/27            Begin discussion of Morrison’s Beloved.


11/29            Discussion of Beloved


12/4              Discussion of Beloved


12/6              Review


Final Examination: Wednesday, Dec. 12 at 6 P.M..