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Black Is/Black Ain't: Race & Speculation in the American Imaginary - ENG00141M

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  • Department: English and Related Literature
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Janine Bradbury
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2022-23
    • See module specification for other years: 2021-22

Module summary

On this module, which takes its name from the seminal Marlon Rigg’s documentary, we will unpack and critique the myriad ways that Blackness is parsed, constructed, (re)produced and consumed in American literary culture paying particular attention to race and blackness as a site, metaphor, or vehicle for the speculative. In The Physics of Blackness (2016), Michelle Wright describes Blackness as “a mirage” as “evanescent” (2). In Playing in the Dark (1991), Toni Morrison observes that for white authors like Hemingway and Faulkner, the Africanist presence often represents a “blank, empty space,” as well as “anxiety” (14) and “dread” (x), a “fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire that is uniquely American” (38). For Andre M. Carrington, genre is key; speculative fiction can tell us much “about what it means to be Black” (1). African American figures are thus invoked in speculative and conjectural ways to connote ontological instability and threat as well as promise and potentiality.

We will close read short stories, poetry, and critical works by writers such as Morgan Parker, Nella Larsen, Flannery O’Connor, Brit Bennett, Terrance Hayes, Wanda Coleman, Alice Walker, William Faulkner, Grace Jones, Hanif Abdurraquib and discuss television (Mad Men), film (Six Degrees of Separation), and art (Ellen Gallagher) in order to examine how race and Blackness is invoked to destablise, question, and interrogate ideas of being, authenticity, and embodiment. We will explore imagined lives, critical fabulations, speculative genealogies and biographies, reimaginings, passings, hauntings, and queerings of the Black presence in American literature and place these readings within innovative and ground-breaking theoretical and critical contexts.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Autumn Term 2022-23

Module aims

This module aims to:

  • introduce you to the theoretical interface between creative and critical explorations of Blackness in the 20th and 21st century American literature and culture.

  • Facilitate close readings of a range of forms, styles, and genres.

  • Enable you to theorise and contemplate the relationship between speculation and the racial imaginary.

Module learning outcomes

On successful completion of the module, you should be able to:

  1. Demonstrate an advanced understanding of representations of race in American literature in 20th and 21st century American writing.

  2. Demonstrate advanced research skills which enable you to place these texts within cultural, theoretical, and literary contexts.

  3. Apply methods and strategies for exploring the relationship between creative and critical materials.

  4. Produce independent arguments and ideas in class and in writing and carry out independent research that engages with the key themes and contexts of the module.

Indicative assessment

Task Length % of module mark
Essay : 4,500 word essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

You will hand in an essay of 1,400-1,600 words in Week 6 of the Autumn term for the Postgraduate Life in Practice module. The main purpose of the essay is to ensure that the department can identify those students who may require additional assistance with academic writing skills. Material from this essay may be re-visited in either one of the January essays or the dissertation. It is therefore an early chance to work through material that might be used in assessed work. The title topic of the essay, like the title topic of all assessed work for the degree, is left open to the individual student.

Indicative reassessment

Task Length % of module mark
Essay : 4,500 word essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

You will receive feedback on all assessed work within the University deadline, and will often receive it more quickly. The purpose of feedback is to inform your future work; it is designed to help you to improve your work, and the Department also offers you help in learning from your feedback. If you do not understand your feedback or want to talk about your ideas further you can discuss it with your module tutor, the MA Convenor or your supervisor, during their Open Office Hours

Indicative reading

Indicative texts may include:

  • Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half (2020)

  • Terrance Hayes, To Float in the Space Between (2018)

  • Wanda Coleman, Wicked Enchantment (2021)

  • Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (1983)

  • Short stories by Flannery O’ Connor and William Faulkner

  • Saidiya Hartman Lose Your Mother (2008)

  • Hanif Abdurraqib, A Little Devil in America (2021)

  • Morgan Parker, Magical Negro (2019)

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University constantly explores ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary. In some instances it may be appropriate for the University to notify and consult with affected students about module changes in accordance with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.