Perhaps more than any other aspect of national history, slavery has continued to haunt political and cultural life in the United States. This course explores the evolution of narratives of slavery from the nineteenth to twenty-first centuries, paying particular attention to the ways generic features, rhetorical goals, and literary styles adapted to new historical conditions. Although this course recognizes significant connections between the pre- and post-emancipation eras, it also disrupts any sense of straightforward continuity. Reading pre-emancipation texts will establish the major contours of the genre at a time when narratives were responding to the immediate crisis of slavery within the complicated context of the abolition movement. As the course moves into post-emancipation texts, we will trace how communal memory (as opposed to direct experience) changes the cultural meaning of slavery. What additional perspective does historical distance facilitate, and what can contemporary narratives of slavery articulate that pre-slavery versions could not? We will also examine visual media including the art of Kara Walker and movies like Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. In a way, these visual texts (and the controversies they inspired) consolidate many of the major concerns of this course: what stories can be told, and by whom? Perhaps particularly salient for literary scholars, what does it mean to enjoy them?


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