Doing American Studies Now: African American Text, Media and Theory

Cara RodwayMMUh

The British Association for American Studies is pleased to propose the panel ‘Doing American Studies Now: African American Text, Media and Theory.’ Our panel will discuss new trends in research, publication and teaching in American Studies, focused through the study of African American literature, culture and performance. We give attention to theories of Afro-Pessimism, the Black Lives Matters movement, and the study of contemporary African American literature and film/media in conversation with key texts from the 20th-century and with classical forms. Our panel coheres around the urgency and challenges of doing African American Studies in British universities in 2020.

Afro-Pessimism and Black Literary Childhood (Dr Nicole King)

Dr Nicole King, Lecturer in American Literature, Goldsmiths, University of London (Panel Chair)

This paper explores the intersections of literary representations of modern black childhood and Afro-pessimism. Afro-Pessimism is currently the most influential theoretical idiom within African American and black diaspora studies. In this paper I will introduce its main features, drawing on the work of humanities scholars such as Christina Sharpe and Saidiya Hartman. Whilst narratives of childhood intrinsically suggest progress and development, the way in which black childhood is represented in modern African American Literature is consistent with Afro-Pessimist ideas, particularly a questioning of generational racial progress narratives. I will anchor my discussion with specific examples from short stories by Ann Petry (Miss Muriel and Other Stories, 1971) and Z.Z. Packer (Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, 2003).

‘“In Memory of…”: The Catalogue in Black Lives Matter Literature’ (Dr Gavan Lennon)

Dr Gavan Lennon, Senior Lecturer in American Studies, Canterbury Christ Church University 

When the list of victims of racial violence gets ever longer, how do we prevent any one name from fading into the background? How do we do the ethical work of memorialisation without losing sight of the individuality of the person we mourn? How do we #SayHerName without becoming jaded or hopeless? Since 2012, African American poets including Jericho Brown, Ross Gay, Claudia Rankine, and Danez Smith and writers of fiction including Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Angie Thomas, and Jesmyn Ward have confronted these challenging ethical questions. This paper argues that they answer them by turning to a surprising and very old formal technique: the catalogue. Going back at least as far as Homer, the catalogue might seem at odds with the contemporary, politically engaged writing listed above. In innovative and experimental reimaginings of the form, however, these writers put the catalogue to work, articulating new and compelling means of literary protest.

Teaching African American Literature Intertextually: A Pedagogic and Personal Reflection on “Diversifying” Higher Education (Dr Janine Bradbury)

Dr Janine Bradbury, Senior Lecturer in Literature, York St John University 

In this paper, I offer a series of reflections on the first two years of delivering a new interdisciplinary African American literature module (Level 5). Primary texts included on the module range from Childish Gambino’s This is America (2018) and Beyoncé’s Lemonade to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959), and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016). Inspired by the autoethnographic approaches offered by bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Toni Morrison and others, this critical and creative reflection on pedagogy asks how teaching, assessing, and reading African American literary texts with an interdisciplinary approach has become a vital component in my own practice as a woman of colour academic in predominantly white higher education institutions. I also explore some of the challenges inherent in my approach, and why and how we can support and encourage interdisciplinary readings of African American literary material in the classroom that draw upon film and media studies, history, and creative writing.


LEARNED SOCIETIES STRAND: The British Association for American Studies

Sat 12:45 pm - 2:00 pm