African American Poetry & the Idea of Citizenship

Malin Pereira, English, UNC Charlotte

We are all citizens, literally of nation(s) and metaphorically of people(s). The tradition of African American poetry is no different. Poetry, a vehicle for expressing identities and affiliations, has long given voice to blacks’ sometimes vexed and sometimes fervent 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 selected 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, which could be read over the summer.

In the fall, we will delve into the poems of selected African American poets across the tradition such as  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 work collaboratively in our seminar meetings to enjoy the poems, achieve a critical understanding of black citizenship(s), and interpret the poetry through those lenses.

Teachers in this seminar can expect to increase their knowledge about and comfort level with poetry, to understand themselves and their students as citizens, to develop a deeper understanding of black culture and experiences across history, and to become fluent in multiple ideas about citizenship(s).