Seeing American History through African American Literature

For Black History Month, Dagmawi Woubshet of English recommends readings from his Introduction to African American Literature course.

Thursday, February 1, 2024

By Susan Ahlborn

Dagmawi Woubshet, Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Endowed Term Associate Professor of English (Image: Courtesy of Woubshet)

“To study the African American literary tradition is to have a front-row view of the making of the American republic and indeed the modern world,” says Dagmawi Woubshet of his course Introduction to African American Literature, which he’s currently teaching for the fourth time.

This semester, Woubshet, Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Endowed Term Associate Professor of English, and his students are reading a variety of genres, from slave narratives to postmodern fiction, blues songs to lyric poetry. The works span the full 400-year history of Blacks in America. They’re employing close reading and textual analysis, as well as contextualizing the readings within the historical shifts in American life. They’re asking what constitutes the African American literary tradition and how it enables a deeper understanding of race—one of the most powerful social constructs of the modern world—and its inextricable ties to other identity markers like gender, sexuality, and class. (The course is cross-listed under English, Africana Studies, and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies.)

“Ultimately,” asks Woubshet, “how does this tradition empower us to grapple with the fundamental questions of what it means to be human? As the late Toni Morrison put it: ‘We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.’ Using the African American literary tradition, then, this course provides an occasion to contemplate the meaning and measure of our lives.”

Omnia asked Woubshet, a scholar, writer, and translator who works at the intersection of African American, LGBTQIA+, and African studies, to recommend some readings from his course. He offers these four books as a starting point, along with his reasons for selecting them:

The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, Nikole Hannah-Jones (2021)

This is one of the most important edited volumes published on African American literature, history, and culture in recent years. It includes poems by some of my favorite authors—Natasha Trethewey, Rita Dove, and Danez Smith, among others—who reflect on the African American experience since the arrival of Black people on these shores in 1619. This is an important read also because since its publication scores of politicians have tried (and in some cases succeeded) in banning it from appearing in high school and university courses. As bans on African American books are on a sharp increase and academic freedom is under immediate threat, a book of consequence like this one is essential reading.

The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture, Kevin Quashie (2012)

Kevin Quashie’s tour-de-force study of literature and art moves away from a model of understanding Black culture as exclusively one of resistance, “where Black subjectivity exists for its social and political meaningfulness rather than as a marker of the human individuality of the person who is Black.” Quashie opens up different interpretive possibilities of African American literature, foregrounding Black interior life and generating an expansive vocabulary with which to regard Black letters and life—like “surrender,” “wander,” “wonder,” “aliveness,” “abundance,” “vulnerability,” “intimacy,” “tenderness,” “prayer,” and “reverie.”

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin (1963)

One of the great literary works of the Civil Rights movement, The Fire Next Time is arguably Baldwin’s finest collection of essays, a lucid example of his ability to weave together aesthetics, politics, and ethics into one exquisite tapestry. Although it appeared in book form in 1963, its two missives were originally published the year before—the shorter piece, “A Letter to My Nephew” in The Progressive and the longer, near-40,000-word “Letter from a Region in My Mind” in The New Yorker. Both exemplify Baldwin’s signature essay form, which employs the author’s personal story as text for collective self-reflection. And here the epistolary form gives him ample room to shift points of view, sometimes in an instant, from the personal to the national to the global; from critical analysis of race, religion, and nation to existential meditations on why human beings need these categories in the first place. It’s also a praise song for love and necessary reading for any era, including our own.

The Nobel Lecture in Literature, 1993, Toni Morrison (1994)

In this slim but powerful volume, her 1993 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Toni Morrison delivers an extraordinary mediation on the uses and abuses of language. At a time when language is being manipulated for nefarious ends, especially as we head into another election season in the United States, Morrison’s words provide an important cautionary tale about our ethical responsibility toward language itself. Although a bold treatise on language, this is also a beautifully crafted short story, conveying Morrison’s power as a fiction writer and a cultural theorist. Her delivery is so exquisite that, in addition to reading it, I would also recommend hearing a recording of Morrison’s address.