African American Poetry & the Idea of Citizenship

Malin Pereira, English, UNC Charlotte

The tradition of African American poetry, with its connections to lyric, epic and oral traditions, and as a symbol of intellectual and cultural mastery, has long given voice to blacks’ vexed relationship with the idea of citizenship. Whether addressing the right to have full citizenship in the US, a desire for African diasporic or black nationalist citizenship, or belief in a citizenship of the world, black American poets beginning with Phillis Wheatley have addressed the claims, aspirations, frustrations, and ambivalences of the African American experience with citizenship(s) across the past 350 years. This seminar will draw upon writings in the black intellectual tradition on black citizenship(s) by writers such as Frederick Douglass, David Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Larry Neal and Toni Morrison, in counterpoint with the work of selected African American poets across the tradition including Phillis Wheatley, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Amiri Baraka, Wanda Coleman, Rita Dove, Claudia Rankine, Cyrus Cassells and Thylias Moss. We will read both individual poems as well as some book-length collections of poetry. We will work collaboratively in our meetings to achieve a critical understanding of black citizenship(s) and to interpret the poetry through those lenses. Teachers in this seminar can expect to increase their knowledge about and comfort level with poetry, to develop a deeper understanding of black culture and experiences across history, and to become fluent in multiple ideas about citizenship(s).