Black Modernism and the Politics of Sex
ENGL 200 H – Autumn 14:
Black Modernism and the Politics of Sex
Instructor: Jason H. Morse, Ph.D.
Image: Stuart Davis Swing Landscape (1938)
Writing Option 1
Writing Option 2
Jthis class has two main objectives. The first will be an interrogation of the literary and cultural category of “Black Modernism,” during which we will question the term as a historical, generic, formal, and thematic descriptor. Is “Black Modernism” meant to indicate Black subjects’ interest in modernist texts? Or self-identified Black artists whose artistic expression aligns with modernist tenets? Or perhaps cultural texts of a certain historical period whose content deals with Blackness and/or “Black topics”? While modernism is described as a reaction to the social changes of modernity that involved a sometimes tentative overturning of tradition in their experimentation with form (as famously urged in Ezra Pound’s dictum “Make it new!”) and/or content (as famously demanded in William Carlos Williams’s motto “No ideas but in things”). In what ways does this definition also describe the work of the Harlem Renaissance and/or the “New Negro”? What connections are there between what became constituted as a primarily white European literary and arts movement and the work of African American writers and artists of the same time period? What differences might there be between modernism and Black modernism and how might we think about any differences as connected to a difference in subject position in U.S. (and global) racial formation? Might Black Modernism be in reaction to a different modernity, a racial modernity that is certainly, in some way, conditioned by modernism’s role in reproducing racial formation through its dalliance with the racial other, most famously in the erotic exoticism of its primitivism and its representation and salient understanding of racialized others through the frame of sexual stereotypes.
This class’s second related objective, then, will be to think about the politics of sex in the gendered production of race in America that Black modernism engages. While sex is had, used, and exchanged for many reasons (for reproduction, pleasure, intimacy, and securing financial and other forms of well-being), it is also used as a mode of control and manipulation, as a source of moralizing and shaming, and as a form of violence and a legitimization of other violences. Sex and sexuality have also come to mean many things as part of our socialization, as forms of identity, as ways of evaluating people, and as indicators of normativity and even rationality. Sexual stereotypes are also modalities through which race and gender are (re)produced and lived and one way bodies are disciplined. For these reasons and more, sex has also been the subject, whether explicitly or implicitly, of many (if not most) literary narratives. This class will analyze the representations of sex in the cultural forms of Black modernism, including fiction, poetry, visual arts, and performance. We will investigate what sex does in these texts and how it is used, including the way it is deployed to negotiate U.S. racial and gender formation. We will question what sex does in and to the narratives we read and the ways different cultural forms represent and engage the subject of sex to make claims about the social world and to intervene in the hegemonic and stereotypical definitions that label people. Finally, we will wonder about whether any definition of Black modernism doesn’t need to include some discussion about how this cultural work questioned sexual stereotypes in U.S. racial modernity as well as the discourses of respectability, identity, rationality, desire, and authenticity that these stereotypes frame.
Authors may include Countee Cullen, W.E.B. DuBois, T.S. Eliot, Jessie Fauset, Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, Claude McKay, Richard Bruce Nugent, Ann Petry, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Thurman, Jean Toomer, and Richard Wright and others.