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Reading African American Poetry Now (And From Europe)

Class at Faculty of Arts |


The course takes place each Monday at 12:30 in the main building of the Faculty of Arts, room 034.

All materials + additional reading are available through the Moodle page of the course  

WEEK 1 – Introduction (7.10.)

In-class reading: Terrence Hayes, “How to Draw a Perfect Circle,” How to Be Drawn (New York: Penguin Books, 2015), 98-100.  

WEEK 2  - What is African American Literature? (14.10.)

Kenneth W. Warren, “On ‘What Was African American Literature’”, American Literary Studies: New Text, New Approaches, New Challenges, 2010, 739-742.

“What Was African American Literature? - A Podcast with Kenneth W. Warren.” Harvard University Press Blog, 5 Jan. 2011, <>  

WEEK 3 – Young, Gifted, and Black: On Microaggressions and Serena Williams (21.10.)

Excerpts from Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyrics (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014).  

WEEK 4 – Different Times, Different Bodies (4.11.)

Danez Smith, “not an elegy for Mike Brown,” Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems (Minneapolis, Graywolf Press, 2017), 81.

Margaret Walker “For Malcolm X,” This is My Century: New and Selected Poems (University of Georgia Press, 1989), 70.

Amiri Baraka/Leroi Jones: “A Poem for Black Hearts,” A Poem for Black Hearts (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1967), 4.  

WEEK 5 – Poetry, Civil Rights, and the Cold War (11.11.)

In-class reading: various Civil Rights poems 

Mary L. Dudziak: “Fighting the Cold War with Civil Rights Reform” Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2001),  18-46  

WEEK 6 – Erasures (18.11.)

Mary Helen Washington: “When Gwendolyn Brooks Wore Red,” The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s (Columbia University Press, 2014), 165-204

Gwendolyn Brooks, from A Street in Bronzeville (New York: Harper, 1945), Riot (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1969).  

WEEK 7 – Essay Topics Presentation (25.11.)  

WEEK 8 – Surveillance (2.12.)

William J. Maxwell, “The FBI is Perhaps the Most Dedicated and Influential Forgotten Critic of African American Literature,”(New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2015) 127-174.

Richard Wright, “The FB Eye Blues,” Richard Wright Reader (New York: Harper and Rown, 1978), 249-50.  

WEEK 9 –  Journeys (9.12.)

In-class reading: various poems of the Black diaspora

Paul Gilroy, “The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity,” The Black Atlantic (Harvard UP, 1993)1-40.  

WEEK 10 - All That Rap: The Limits of the Literary (16.12.)

Guest seminar   

WEEK 11 - Harlem and Prague (6.1.)

Charles Stabatos, “A Long Way from Prague: The Harlem Renaissance and Czechoslovakia,” Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Vol. 50., Nr., Spring 2017, 39-74.

Langston Hughes, “Good Morning Revolution,” New Masses 8, 3 (September 1932), 5.



How do we read African American poetry now and how do we reflect on our own position as readers from the other side of the Atlantic? In this course, we will join the primary texts with the reconsiderations of the African American literature (poetry especially) that has been done since the 1990s. This course follows a specific trajectory in the development of African American poetry, pointing to texts and tendencies that have, until very recently, been overlooked in the main story: it starts with the “now” and works in a reverse chronology, moving a hundred years back to the start of the Harlem Renaissance to uncover one of the many narratives within the complex legacy of African American poetry, with a special focus on the so called radical or political poetry. This course also travels in space as it tries to catch the to-and-fro movement of poetry, and the global reach of African American culture.

The primary material for this course is poetry and literary criticism, but we will also explore other media, reflecting intersections of literature, music, visual media and popular culture.

Through the poets, artists, and critics, we will encounter different ideas of what poetry is and what it should do. Most poems featured in the course could be widely described as political: this leads us to various issues of race, form and politics, the way poetry is or isn’t able to respond to current events, different opinions on the role of the poet in the political struggle, and also the various ways poetry and social movements travel.

In Weeks 1-5, we will discuss contemporary poets together with various definitions of African American poetry (questioning both the “African American” and the “poetry” label). The second part follows larger trends in African American literary history and criticism: it looks at the development of African American poetry as a continuous process, reconsiders the Leftist writers excluded from the canon, and adds an international perspective. After exploring the African American poets within the framework of US cultural memory (and what was erased from it), including the control the state held over these writers, we go back to the question of definition of African American literature in Week 10, contrasting it with the notion of the black diaspora, enquiring whether this framework could be enlarged even further. Symbolically, the course ends with a text on the Czechoslovak inspiration of the Harlem Renaissance.

This is not a survey course in African American poetry; rather it encourages the course participants to think beyond the usual narratives of literary history.

Study programmes