Representing the Race: The Autobiographical Tradition in African American Literature





I have taught this course twice to advanced undergraduates at Harvard in a small setting to help them prepare the skills they need to write a senior thesis. For this reason, many of the assignments are tailored to those specific skills.

In the course itself, we investigate the advantages and disadvantages of “African American” as a category for literary criticism. To focus the class, we read primarily books in which authors invoke the autobiographical mode in order to define themselves, their books, and their racial identity. In particular, we discuss how African Americans writers during Jim Crow manipulated this form to manage the pressure of “representing the race.” In the process, we consider the effect that different historical periods have had on understandings of a “racial canon” or traditions of racial literature. To this purpose, we read across racial canons in order to see how authors invoke these designations and take that as an invitation to reflect on our own reading methods.