AAS 4570 – Passing in African-American Imagination

AAS 4570 – Passing in African-American Imagination

University of Virginia
The Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American & African Studies
Spring 2011

Alisha Gaines, Post-Doctoral Fellow (English)
Duke University

This course considers the canonical African American literary tradition and popular culture texts that think through the boundaries of blackness and identity through the organizing trope of passing. We will engage texts that represent passing as a liberating performance act, a troubling crime against authenticity, an economic necessity, and/or a stunt of liberal heroics. By the end of the course we will evaluate how our thinking about passing inflects our understanding of supposedly stable categories of identity including gender, class, and sexuality as well as begin to think critically about the relationships between blood and the law, love and politics, opportunity and economics, and acting and being.

Questions to be considered include: What do we make of a literary tradition that supposedly gains coherence around issues of racial belonging but begins by questioning race itself?  What work does the highly gendered depictions of the “tragic mulatta” figure (a mixed-race woman undone by her periled existence between two racialized worlds) do for, and to, African American literature? What happens when the color line crosses you?  Or in other words, where is agency in this discussion?  Do we really know blackness when we see it?  Hear it?  How (and why) is blackness performed and for (and by) whom?  In what ways is identity shaped by who can and can’t pass?  How has globalization made blackness an even more accessible commodity?  How has hip hop?  And finally, aren’t we all passing for something?

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