ENGL470 - African-American Literature: From Slavery to Freedom
This course seeks to map this figure in African American literature beginning with the slave narrative and ending in the 1960s Black Arts Movement.
Throughout American history, the perception of Black men has often been associated with negative stereotypes such as being docile, ignorant, or hyper-sexualized. Arguably the most prevailing of these stereotypes is the image of the violent and aggressive Black man, or the “badman.” Interestingly, African American literature has a long history of illustrating this counter-cultural, sometimes antisocial figure as a folk hero, one who is both feared and celebrated for his willingness to thwart the law and White authority. There are early sketches of the badman hero in slave narratives like The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. A more actualized version of this figure began to emerge in the late nineteenth-century, in the blues and postbellum folk songs that celebrated real Black outlaws like Lee “Stagolee” Shelton and Morris “Railroad Bill” Slater. In Claude McKay’s 1920s Harlem novel, the badman was a king in the rowdy saloons, gambling halls, and sultry cabarets. But by the 1940s, when the Roaring Years were long over, the badman was left to haunt hollowed out cities like Chicago’s Black Belt as illustrated in Richard Wright’s Native Son. In the 1960s the badman had forced his way into the mainstream American imagination with his hip, rhythmic claims of “Black Power!” And beginning in the 1980s, hip-hop took the image of the Black badman to new global heights.
This course seeks to map this figure in African American literature beginning with the slave narrative and ending in the 1960s Black Arts Movement. We will supplement our reading and discussions with references to contemporary illustrations of this literary trope, such as the “pimp,” “hustler,” and drug dealer figure in hip-hop music and “street literature.” And while this will not be a class in hip-hop studies or contemporary Black writing, our purpose is to examine the history of the badman trope to see how Black writers today continue to grapple with and redefine this complicated literary and cultural figure.