Teaching African American Literature in the Age of Obama

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Northeast Modern Language Association: 45th Annual Convention, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
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In 2011, Kenneth Warren made the provocative assertion that African American literature is now a dead genre; it grew out of the Jim Crow era when writers were explicitly engaged with representing black humanity. With the advances of the Civil Rights movement, the goals of this genre of literature are now antiquated. Warren's logic could be read as an extension of the current "post-race" mentality, which assumes that the ascendancy of President Obama is tantamount to the end of race in America. However, the real issue is the influence of post-race on the teaching of African American literature. This genre is still being produced, in part because race remains pertinent.

This roundtable seeks papers that address the following question: how should we teach Black literature in the age of Obama? Robert Stepto's recently collected lectures, A Home Elsewhere, initiates this discussion, as he notes that Barack Obama himself has survived the "age old themes" of African American writing, which include protagonists raising themselves, black boys creating their own definitions of manhood, and characters making homes for themselves in the absence of prototypes.

We anticipate papers that situate contemporary novels, poems, plays and essays within a hypothetical survey of African American literature. Possible questions to consider include: how do we teach Obama alongside the canonical texts of Douglass, Hurston, Ellison, Morrison, or anyone else from this rich tradition? What are the thematic and formal strategies that Obama builds upon in Dreams From My Father? In short, this roundtable will initiate discussions that highlight the teaching of contemporary black writers in dialogue with their canonical forbears.