Migration and African American Literature Syllabus

Jacob Lawrence

On the Ernest J. Gaines Center’s blog, I posted two syllabi: “The Short Story and Ernest Gaines Syllabus.” and African American Crime and Detective Fiction.”  Today, I would like to do something similar on my own blog. Instead of having the syllabus center around Gaines or detective fiction, I want to share with you a syllabus I constructed entitled “Migration and African American Literature.”  The syllabus below does not contain an exhaustive list of texts that could be included in this course. With that said, in the comments below, tell me what suggestions you have for texts, critical or otherwise, that could be added to this course.

Course Description:

This course will examine the role of migration in African American literature. Beginning with the Middle Passage, we will examine migration in authors spanning from Olaudah Equiano through Jamaica Kincaid. To frame this course, we will use Ira Berlin’s four migrations that have shaped the lives of people of African descent here in America. Berlin designates the four migrations as the Middle Passage, the Passage to the Interior, the Passage to the North, and Global Passages. When discussing literature and migration, Berlin states, “These extraordinary works and the symbols connected with the migratory theme—the slave ship, the auction block, the railroad pointed north—announce movement as a central theme in the African American experience” (17). This course will provide students with the opportunity to explore the way that movement and migration appears in African American literature from the slave narratives of Equiano and Northup through the postmodern texts of Naylor and Kincaid.  
Primary Texts:
Secondary Texts:
  • Ira Berlin The Making of African American: The Four Great Migrations (2010)
  • Farah Jasmine Griffin Who Set You Flowin’: The African American Migration Narrative (1995)
  • Charles Scruggs Sweet Home: Invisible Cities in the Afro-American Novel (1993)
  • Response papers: These will be in the form of blog posts. I will set up a blog for the class, and you will post your responses there. Each post will require you to provide an answer to my prompt and to respond to other students’ responses as well. We will discuss how to do this in a professional manner during class. (Teachers, see Shannon Baldino’s “The Classroom Blog: Enhancing Critical Thinking, Substantive Discussion, and Appropriate Online Interaction” for a discussion of blogs in the high school classroom.)
  • Wiki: Students will be placed into groups of four. Each group will be required to construct a collaborative wiki with ________ components on an author and text that we read in class. 
    • Each student must write a paragraph describing the class discussion for that author. For example, if the class discusses the theater in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s The Sport of the Gods, then you will summarize what we said about it in class.  
    • The group must come up with five questions to think about based off of the class discussion or research. 
    • The group must construct an annotated bibliography of six sources. The annotations must be 250-500 words and contain a section stating the source’s credibility, a summary of the source, a way to use that source in a research project. 
    • The group must construct a list of symbols/allusions/or other references in the stories. The number here will vary, but each entry must provide information about where it comes from (especially for an allusion) and what purpose it serves in the context of the story. 
    • The group must construct a review of the short story. The review must be between 500-1000 words. Remember, a review is not a summary. Some summary is necessary, but the thrust of the review should be about the story’s meaning and importance. 
    • The group must construct a creative page. This page can be anything that you desire. For example, it could be a hand drawn map of the setting. It could be sketch of one of the scenes. It could be a Prezi talking about the author and the themes of the story. It could be a video discussion. This page is open to whatever you want to do.   

As stated at the beginning of this post, the readings above are not an exhaustive list of texts that could be used for this class. The ones that I chose provide an overview of African American migrations based on Ira Berlin’s four migrations: Middle Passage, the Passage to the Interior, the Passage to the North, and Global Passages. Each of the texts above may overlap these distinctions. I wanted to make sure that the course had a component of global passages. Kincaid, McKay, and Marshall provide examples of this movement. For the class, I would want students to possibly question Berlin’s designations in relation to the narratives we read. I would also want them to think about the characteristics that link these texts together, specifically texts from the late eighteenth century and those from the late twentieth. 

The texts above represent both canonical and non-canonical texts. I did this on purpose to have students think about what makes a text “canonical” or not, and to have them question these designations when thinking about literature. Along with questioning canon formation, I want students to ponder their notions of migration (typically from rural to urban). A couple of the texts above, specifically Northup and Naylor, deal with migrations, or reverse migrations, from urban to rural settings. In Northup’s case, the migration was not voluntary. What does this do to our understanding of the migration narrative? 

What texts would you suggest? Let me know in the comments below. 

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