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REQUIRED READINGS

Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages

Category

Race and Racism

The Souls of Black Folk

The Souls of Black Folk
W.E.B. DuBois
1903

W.E.B. DuBois’ collection of essays is a foundational work not just of the politics of race in America, but of processes of racialization and of sociology in general. Based upon a series of articles first published in The Atlantic Monthly it is at once a work of history, political struggle, social theory and literature.¬†The Souls of Black Folk is huge. And essential reading for anyone who wants to examine how social relationships are built, maintained, and potentially transformed. As a biographer wrote, “Few books make history and fewer still become foundational texts for the movements and struggles of an entire people. The Souls of Black Folk occupies this rare position. It helped to create the intellectual argument for the black freedom struggle in the twentieth century. Souls… justified the pursuit of higher education for Negroes and thus contributed to the rise of the black middle class. By describing a global color-line, Du Bois anticipated pan-Africanism and colonial revolutions in the Third World. Moreover, this stunning critique of how ‘race’ is lived through the normal aspects of daily life is central to what would become known as ‘whiteness studies’ a century later.”

Continue reading “The Souls of Black Folk”

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Orientalism

Orientalism
Edward Said
1978

Said’s analysis of power and knowledge as they appear in Western representations of the Middle East has become a classic text of post-colonial theory and has entered the canon of post-structuralism more generally – though Said, it should be noted, considered his work to be firmly grounded within the humanist tradition to arise out of the Enlightenment. Rooted in historical and literary analysis, it argues, in short, that Western perceptions about the Middle East are based not on actual knowledge of the region but on a long-standing archtypical conception in which something called ‘the East’ is fundamentally dissimilar to and at odds with something called ‘the West’. Continue reading “Orientalism”

Native Son

Native Son
Richard Wright
1940

“The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever.” So wrote Irving Howe in his essay “Black Boys and Native Sons”. Richard Wright’s novel does not make a particularly good read today – with limited character-development and a plot that by contemporary standards reads as cliched and over-simplistic – but it profoundly shook 1940 America, starkly portraying both the violence of racialization and the patronizing liberalism of the time and served as a major influence for subsequent generations of black writers. It is widely-recognized today as a landmark of American fiction, and one of the most important novels of the twentieth century. Continue reading “Native Son”

Go Tell It On The Mountain

Go Tell It On The Mountain
James Baldwin
1953

James Baldwin’s coming of age story based on his own life is a cornerstone of modern American fiction – a story of race, family and the complex role of religion in society. Drawing heavily from the rythym and language of biblical text, Go Tell It On The Mountain follows the story of John on his fourteenth birthday, and his confrontation with three different parts of his personal and family story – his relationship with his father, the coming of his adulthood, and his religious faith.

Though centred upon John and his relationship to his preacher father, Gabriel, the novel employs distinct sections, or prayers – poetic reflections – each in the voice of a different character to spin a complex story of family history, faith and temptation, sin and redemption. Florence – neglected daughter of a freed slave,¬† resentful sister of Gabriel, abandoned by her husband, traces the link between the past and the present, the enduring¬† legacy of slavery; Gabriel reflects upon his religious conversion, his previous and lingering sins, secrecy and temptation, the continuity of his troubled relationships as son and father; Elizabeth, John’s mother, examines the place of family and the collapse of family, the psychological toll of racism and the possibility of a resistance that is more than just hatred. And then, back to John, to the church and the visions, angels and demons that visit him there, to the reckoning of family history, of fathers and sons, of historical burdens passed generation to generation.

Novelist, essayist, playwright, poet – James Baldwin is a towering figure in twentieth century American literature, and his ability to explore themes of race and sexuality through intensely personal stories continues to influence writers today. Go Tell It On The Mountain is perhaps not his greatest book; it is, though, a hugely influential work, and one that established Baldwin as one of the century’s most important and enduring literary voices.

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