Topics in Literature :Black Sexual Politics

Course Number: ENGL 165AC
Prerequisites: Check on GOLD
Advisory Enrollment Information: May be repeated for credit providing letter designations are different.
General Education Areas Fulfilled: Check on GOLD
Catalog Course Entry: ENGL 165AA-ZZ
Quarter: Winter 2013
Instructor: Blake, Felice
Day(s): MW
Time: 9:30 - 10:45 AM
Location: SH 2635

Representations of Black sexuality pervade social, political, and cultural discourses about modern Black subjectivity. Contemporary ideologies of Black inferiority publicly depict Black parenthood as pathological and African American cultural practices as sexually degenerate. Degrading portrayals of Black men as “pimps,” brutes, and rapists and of Black women as lascivious, materialistic, and irresponsible render African Americans seemingly worthy of their oppression. Yet, mountains of evidence show that past systems of inequality continue to shape people’s vulnerabilities to premature civic, social, economic, bodily and spiritual death in the present. Simultaneously, the past forty years have been characterized by a counterrevolution against the political, economic and civic demands at the root of post-WWII radical freedom movements. Justified through the popular and political discourses of “color-blindness,” “reverse discrimination,” “personal responsibility,” and “cultural pathology,” liberal and conservative forces have absorbed or delegitimated the languages of anti-discrimination and liberation movements into agendas that perpetuate flexible and uneven systems of inequality.

Co-taught by the Director and Graduate Fellow (Dr. Felice Blake and Alison Reed, respectively) of the English Department’s American Cultures & Global Contexts Center as part of our 2012-2013 ANTIRACISM, INC. program, this class will take as a central point of focus the attendant difficulties of an official rhetoric of colorblindness that seeks to mask over evidence of systematic racism, replacing an understanding of history with a rhetoric of pathology. Colorblindness, as a racial regime that denies institutional forms of racism while reasserting white supremacy in racially coded ways, elides racism’s ongoing, cumulative effects. In other words, when the nation pushes an agenda of diverse “multicultural” representation, equal opportunity, and cultural (rather than racial) “pathology,” then race no longer matters. What does antiracism mean in an era that denies racial embodiment as a significant category of analysis? If antiracism has been incorporated into the rhetoric of liberal democracies, the presumptions of neoliberalism, and the sound bites of transnational commercialism what language do we use to contest the marginalization of people historically colonized or impacted by European and U.S. racism and imperialism? If publics are complicit in systemic forms of racism but believe themselves to be anti-racists, how do we re-imagine the meaning of antiracism? Throughout the quarter we will grapple with the peculiar impasses produced when the evidence of systemic intersectional inequality fails to make a difference within the frameworks of current antiracist discourse.

This course thus evaluates the construction of and expectations that surround Black gendered identities as they interact with colorblind regimes. We begin by tracing racialized gender formation under slavery through the Jim Crow era in order to better apprehend the relationship between Black sexual politics and national ideologies about race and gender. The remainder of the course will focus on how Black sexual politics impact African Americans’ conceptions of activism, family, intimacy, and community. Points of focus include: the construction of Black masculinity, the Prison Industrial Complex, welfare and immigration, and queer sexualities. In all of these nodes Blackness functions as a complicated term—simultaneously situated historically with a legacy caught and captured by the transnational circulation of images, and symbolically, as a spectacular marker of so-called “Otherness.” The complexity of this signifier points to the role of sexualization as part of racialization, and the gender and sexual dynamics of racial oppression. Hence, the course will be attentive to the ways that expectations about race, gender, and sexuality destabilize identity categories and provoke new, complex ways to imagine social relationships. Throughout the quarter we will be especially attentive to how and why literature and other cultural texts are key sites for analyzing the problematics related to Black sexual politics. During the last two weeks in particular we will turn our attention to the ways in which colorblindness ideology shapes contemporary discourses of and interventions in Black sexual politics, from the construction of the white liberal subject to the perpetuation of enforced ignorance about racial matters. The course will analyze the fallacies of post-racialism at the same time as it considers the significance of shifts created by freedom and justice movements globally.

Required Texts:

  • Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written By Herself
  • Richard Wright, Uncle Tom’s Children
  • Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?
  • English 165AC Course Reader (available at the Alternative Copy Shop in the UCen)