SCHEDULE OF CLASSES:
02: Introduction; materials distributed
04: Discussion of some fundamental issues
09: Fundamental issues
11: Library exercise--Reserve Room
16: Begin discussions: BLAKE, OR THE HUTS OF AMERICA
18: BLAKE, OR THE HUTS OF AMERICA
23: BLAKE, OR THE HUTS OF AMERICA
25: BLAKE, OR THE HUTS OF AMERICA
02: BLAKE, OR THE HUTS OF AMERICA
04: BLAKE, OR THE HUTS OF AMERICA
09: Begin discussions: BELOVED
30 THE ALCHEMY OF RACE AND RIGHTS
01: THE ALCHEMY OF RACE AND RIGHTS
13: Begin discussions: IMPERIUM IN IMPERIO
15: IMPERIUM IN IMPERIO
20: IMPERIUM IN IMPERIO
22: IMPERIUM IN IMPERIO
27: IMPERIUM IN IMPERIO
29: IMPERIUM IN IMPERIO
04: AND WE ARE NOT SAVED; THE ALCHEMY OF RACE AND RIGHTS
06: AND WE ARE NOT SAVED; THE ALCHEMY OF RACE AND RIGHTS
11: AND WE ARE NOT SAVED; THE ALCHEMY OF RACE AND RIGHTS
13: AND WE ARE NOT SAVED; THE ALCHEMY OF RACE AND RIGHTS
WHAT THE COURSE IS ABOUT:
This is a course of discovery. In it, we want to find out what can be said about the relationships among American law in the nineteenth century and various fictional and legal texts by African Americans. In so doing, we may also find ourselves able to formulate some questions about African American texts and the law in the twentieth century as well. Beyond that, we may put down some questions about the relationships between law and literature in general.
The "law and literature" movement has been evolving for ten years or so. At its base is the proposition that both law and literature are "text-making enterprises." That is, they are activities that use language in extended formal exercises to a) reflect the experiential world of their users, and b) to be self- reflexive, i.e., refer to their own internal logic and history rather than refer to some external event or thing. The texts they make are collected and utilized by society in different ways.
One important idea about texts, for this course, is that of "intertextuality." By this, I mean that we can read texts through their relationship with other texts. In this way, the existence of one text contributes to the meanings or implications of another text and vice versa. For example, many of you may have read Beloved in another course or on your own. When we read and discuss it in this course in conjunction with legal texts and other African American fiction, the book may take on different implications for you. The "meaning" of the book may have become something other than it was when you read it first, once we "interrogate" it through other texts. We will discuss this and some other theoretical points in class.
So what we will do here is read these texts by using them to interrogate one another and measure them against everything else that we know from our experience, our traditions, and our formal education. One purpose of this activity, though not the only one we will derive, is to come to some ability to describe how these two text-making practices, the most central such activities of our society, understand the experiences of persons of color in this country.
HOW THE COURSE WORKS:
1) To pass the course you must read, talk, and write. The better you do these things (assuming you actually "learn" something from the reading to write and talk about), the better your grade will be.
2) You must do the reading before you come to class on the day the material is listed for discussion. If you don't, you will not understand much because I am not going to read it to you in class. I will assume you have read it and will use the material as the starting point for comments by me and for class discussion.
3) Your grade for the semester will be based on class participation and on three written assignments. The first will deal with the novels Blake. . . and Beloved and certain legal readings. The second will add Imperium in Imperio and more legal texts to questions raised by the first assignment and its texts. The third will add Bell's and Williams' books to the mixture. I will be more concrete about the assignments later in the course.
4) This is a college class and is protected by a long tradition of academic freedom. This tradition supports free and open discussion, often with no holds barred. No one will be penalized by the instructor for opinions or beliefs. It is always useful to remind yourself that everybody has opinions but not all are "informed" opinions and may be based on unexamined prejudices and be held despite lack of real experience with the subject under discussion.
5) As the person charged with responsibility for the management of this class, I will not accept behavior from any of the participants that prevents us from doing the work of the course.
6) As you can see, regular attendance will be essential for success in this course. If you are having problems that prevent you from attending, if you have problems with the work or the content, or if you want to talk about issues raised in the class, please fell free to come see me. I will give you my office hours as soon as I decide whether morning or afternoon will work better. My office is Room 1246N.
You can reach me at my office 'phone (212) 237-8575 or you can leave a message there. You can also reach me at home at (718) 788-7745.
I look forward to the semester. I hope you enjoy it.
SOME NOTES ON THE COURSE:
In part, this course grew out of an earlier course, in composition, that dealt with Sherley Ann Williams' Dessa Rose and Charles Johnson's Middle Passage as well as the Bell and Patricia Williams' books listed for this course. One could easily include those texts for this course.
I supplemented the assigned texts and the reserve list with photocopies of documents from the 18th and 19th centuries: a manumission certificate, a certificate of ownership of an infant born to a slave in New York, a bill of sale for a slave, a "pass" for a slave to travel away from home, a claim for fees for having cuaght a runaway slave, and a notice of bond against a free woman of color who had been arrested for "insulting a white man." We discussed, among other matters, the implications of the fact that each of these documents was a printed, i.e., mass-produced form with blanks to fill out. The quotidian nature of these pre-printed forms gave us a real sense of the institutionalization of slavery as a system of control.
We spent some time with the implicit narratives in each of the documents. That is, the forms themselves were not narratival but once names, ages, dates, locations, and imputed actions were filled in, then stories took shape. We talked about how memory, history, law, and fiction were all narrative systems, all text-producing enterprises. We noted how these documents contibuted to each of those genres.
Beyond the notion of intertextuality discussed in the notes to the syllabus, we also worked on understanding such matters as the social construction of reality, privieged narration, subject position in the text, and the ground of definition as they might apply to texts of law and African-American experience. These were ongoing discussions and re-emerged with each new text.
I also distributed to each member of the class a copy of the Constitution, of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and its 1793 precursor, and of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Missouri Compromise. These were referred to in our discussions of Beloved, Blake, Bell, and Williams.
In practice, the course worked as a "discussion" by/with/of Delany contra Morrison, then Delany contra Griggs, with both of these informing and being informed by the documents and all eventually passed through Bell and Williams.
1. After identifying relevant chapters in Williams and having read both Delany and Morrison, the class was asked to consider the fiction through the lens of one or more of the issues raised by Williams about African Americans under the law. I expected that the discussions would reflect the influence of our class discussions and exerience with reserve readings and documents. I also asked that the respondent also consider that which she felt remained untouched in the books by her discussion that was necessary to account for the book's impact on her. As an option, a student could address the question of how writers take similar historical moments and conditions and create different texts. Delany and Morrison are wonderful examples of this. Students were to take into account as many variables as they could identify and then consider what, after all, the texts had in common other than their historical roots. To end, the student choosing this option was asked to consider how the texts by Delany and Morrison changed when read through Williams.
2. At mid-semester, students were asked to choose one or more of the documents we had seen and develop a fiction that engaged some of the issues we had been discussing: subject position, objectification, the function of memory, inhumanity of slavery as a system rather than as an collection of acts, law as a story, literacy and the importance of story-telling, the inhumanity of whites, color discrimination within the race, revolution and resistance, escape, violence as a response to slavery, violence as a part of slavery.
3. At semester's end, students responded by writing for two hours
in the seminar room. For the first hour they were to respond to
passages from Houston Baker (Singers of Daybreak 1974) and Toni
Morrison (Playing in the Dark 1992):
Baker: "In the black narrative, the judgement rendered by the white world manifests itself in a pattern of extralegality. Moving from an initially limitedposition, the black protagonist often finds himself outside the dictates of a society that attempts to confine him, and his expanding consciousness leads to the realization that it is not humanism or moral righteousness that brings about the adverse rulings of the white world, but a quest for personal power and a desire for psychological stability purchased at the price of a distorted image of the black American." (16)
Morrison: "Black slavery enriched the country's creative possibilities. For in that construction of blackness and enslavement could be found not only the not-free but also, with the dramatic polarity created by skin color, the not-me. The result was a playground of the imagination. What rose up out of collective needs to allay internal fears and to rationalize external exploitation was an American Africanism--a fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire that is uniquely American." (38) These passages reflected on the course generally, but specifically raised issues conmnected to the Griggs novel.
For the second hour the students read a document new to them, an 1837 letter from a Mr. George Farnham complaining to his local magistrate that a band of slave patrollers had beaten one of his slaves. In the 3 1/2 page letter, Parnham describes the beating and reveals much about the relationships between his family and their slaves. But finally he comes to his point: "So, please to issue a writ against [the patrol] [sic] I suppose that it would be proper to say that these men came forcibly upon my premeses and injured my negro, by means of which I lost his services for a period of time. The facts of the case are that I am not only losing his services at this time, but am employing a physician for him." [Schomburg Slavery Collection MS Slavery P7 Sc Micro R 1520 #77 1837 July 25]
The instructions to the students were: "Read the accompanying document and write about this course for one hour."
This passage, rich in voice, focused attention on the question ofsubject position in law and narrative. Slaves could not bring suit or charges in any court; most were illiterate by law. Then whose story is this? Can property, which by law could own nothing, own its own story? Can that which was contracted for, that which was defined, ever give up the right to contract, the right to define, once it is seized?