ENGL 393 B2: Topics in Literature and the Environment

W. Gordon

African American perspectives on the environment have long been suppressed in mainstream discourse, despite the importance of questions of land, labor, and resource to the historical and ongoing experiences of Black people in the United States. Against this discursive exclusion, this course takes up African American literature as a source for unique insights into the cultural, political, and social meanings of energy and ecology, two key vectors of contemporary environmental thought. Drawing on texts, art, music, and film from the late nineteenth century to the present, this course considers planetary problems of ecological catastrophe and climatic change in relation to the everyday structures of U.S.-American racial politics. Through close analyses of texts and films set on plantations and steamships, in gardens and coal mines, students will explore the environmental dimensions of African American literature, and grapple with many of the real-world problems with which these works engage. The course will take up a series of key themes including the representation of Black labor; questions of species, race, and the human; environmental determinism; energy extraction, infrastructure, and consumption; leisure and aesthetic enjoyment; “urban” ecologies; and environmental change. Literary texts will include stories from Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjure Tales (1899), Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), bell hooks’ poetry collection Appalachian Elegy (2012), and Nnedi Okorafor’s graphic novel LaGuardia (2019). These readings will be guided by theory and criticism from Black Studies, ecocriticism, and the energy humanities by authors like Sylvia Wynter, Édouard Glissant, Cedric Robinson, Rob Nixon, Andreas Malm, and Nicole Starosielski.