Literature of American Cultures
What makes American history, and why would we want to—need to—remake it? This course explores literary and visual materials produced in the post-Civil Rights U.S. by artists and writers who ponder this question and approach history like a raw material that demands to be refashioned and constantly problematized. What versions of American history have they remade, and what new versions and visions of history do they produce in the process? How has re-making history been used to gain a critical understanding of silences and omissions in the United States’ story? What are the limits to historical revision and reconstruction, and how do these coexist alongside the need to experiment with imaginative modes of repurposing history through writing and visual culture?
With these questions in mind, we will begin by studying Octavia Butler’s neo-slave narrative Kindred, which revisits and remakes the nineteenth-century slave narratives that created a literary space for African-American slaves to circulate their testimonies and elicit support for the abolitionist cause. Reading excerpts from slave narratives by Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass alongside Butler’s novel, we will consider how Butler rewrites a fundamental literary genre of the nineteenth-century United States, remaking it in a way that questions history’s malleability, while also underscoring the role that race plays in deciding who makes American history and who is granted power to re-make or re-imagine it.
From there, we will move to Saidiya Hartman and Carrie Mae Weems’ experiments with reading and reconstructing ‘lost’ histories out of archival materials. Reading Hartman’s genre- bending blend of autobiography and history Lose Your Mother, we will consider Hartman’s move to intertwine personal and collective stories, African and African-American histories, and narratives of past and present, all while marking the incomplete and indeed impossible task of recreating slavery’s history from archival records. Similarly concerned with absences and erasure, Carrie Mae Weems’ multimedia art installation The Hampton Project pieces together visual and poetic fragments, creating a co-history for African Americans and Native Americans through a collage of poems, audio, and recycled photographs from a World Fair Expedition used to promote U.S. re-education campaigns at the turn of the twentieth century. If Weems’ installation mourns how Native and African-American subjects were forcibly reshaped to become ‘Americans’ through campaigns like these, her art also refashions this history in an openly fragmented and incomplete way, undercutting a totalizing mode and exposing the erasures in the nation’s archives.
As we continue to trace this tension between re-purposing American history and recognizing what cannot be known or recovered, we will then close the semester with a unit of fiction, film, and performance art that juxtaposes explicitly revisionist works with ones that probe the ethics of reconstructing histories. We will study Chicana feminists’ (Sandra Cisneros, Cherrie Moraga) rewritings of La Malinche and other archetypes that they borrow and transform from sixteenth-century narratives of Spanish conquest, plus performance art pieces by Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco that push archetypal representations of ‘Native’ Americans to their outrageous extreme, performing a resistant response to Christopher Columbus’ account of Amerindians to protest the official commemorations of the 500-year anniversary of his landing in the Americas. We will watch Luis Valdez’s 1981 film that reaches back to 1940s Los Angeles to provide a counter-history of the Zoot Suit Riots, as well as read Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” which wonders whether reimagining history necessitates rethinking the kinds of materials and modes that we deem worthy of making history in the first place. Sherman Alexie’s short story will ask us to contemplate whether a stolen history can be ‘redeemed,’ and our final novel, Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, will question the redemptive power of re-making history while battling to recuperate ‘minor’ histories that might otherwise never be told. By elevating the story of a Dominican-American immigrant family to the level of national epic, Díaz’s bildungsroman highlights the pressing need to not only revise and multiply America’s histories, but also to explore alternative strategies for making history as well.
Kindred, Octavia Butler
Excerpts from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs
Excerpts from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Frederick Douglass
Excerpts from Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, Saidiya Hartman
“Venus in Two Acts,” Saidiya Hartman
“Everyday Use,” Alice Walker
“What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” Sherman Alexie
“Lullaby” and selections from The Storyteller, Leslie Marmon Silko
“La Carta de Colón,” Christopher Columbus
Selected stories from Woman Hollering Creek, Sandra Cisneros
Excerpts from Loving in the War Years, Cherrie Moraga
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz
Film & Visual Materials:
The Hampton Project art installation, Carrie Mae Weems
Reel Injun: On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian, Dir. Neil Diamond
Zoot Suit, Dir. Luis Valdez
The Couple in the Cage, Dir. Paula Heredia
Performance art by Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco