LITR 5731 Seminar in Multicultural Literature
American Minority Literature

Lecture Notes


802 Yaruba?

minority culture as spoken culture x dominant culture as written culture

303 x-pencil > memorize



American literary aesthetics remain powerfully influenced by Romanticism, which Modern / Postmodern writers like Morrison vary and challenge. 2 examples:The wilderness gothic, in which the "maze" or "labyrinth" of the gothic space is projected onto nature. What variations when Milkman enters the forest to meet Pilate at the end?

overall point:

dominant culture / traditional canon sometimes uses gothic to represent the other as mysterious, dangerous, but minority writers may use gothic for their own purposes.

darkness redeemed

gothic framework may be adapted by minority writers to feature multicultural content



gothic color scheme operates by western color code

African American literature redeems darkness: research options

40-41 black, rainbow

185 deeper darkness

272 black night

273 swallowed up by the dark


274 dirt, whispering > 279 what, if anything, the earth had to say

274 Ryna's Gulch (323 Hagar & Ryna)

cf. Legend of Sleepy Hollow [50]

275 circling now (maze; cf. Blair Witch Project)





Todorov, Tzvetan.  The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other.  Translated from the French by Richard Howard.  NY: Harper & Row, 1984. (Editions du Seuil, 1982).

[post-structuralist description of self & other, how the self comes to know the other: how the meeting of Spanish & Indians created the modern world, and how Spaniards conquered through language or communication

3.  subject--the discovery self makes of the other

I can conceive of these others [also I's] as an abstraction, as an instance of any individual's psychic configuration, as the Other--other in relation to myself, to me; or else as a specific social group to which we do not belong. 

This group in turn can be interior to society: women for men, the rich for the poor, the mad for the "normal"; or it can be exterior to society, i.e., another society which will be near or far away, depending on the case: beings whom everything links to me on the cultural, moral, historical plane; or else unknown quantities, outsiders whose language and customs I do not understand, so foreign that in extreme instances I am reluctant to admit they belong to the same species as my own. . . .

"Montezuma and Signs"

63    We know, thanks to the texts of the period, that the Indians devote a great part of their time and their powers to the interpretation of messages, and that this interpretation takes remarkably elaborate forms, which derive from various kinds of divination.  Chief among these is cyclical divination (of which, among us, astrology is an example).

67  Duran:  "The number of rites was so great that it was not possible for a single minister to attend to all."

          Hence, it is society as a whole--by the intermediary of the priests, who are merely the repository of social knowledge--that decides the fate of the individual, who is thereby not an individual in the sense we usually give this word.  In Indian society of the period, the individual himself does not represent a social totality but is merely the constitutive element of that other totality, the collectivity.

69 Would it be forcing the meaning of "communication" to say, starting from this point, that there exist two major forms of communication, one between man and man, the other between man and the world, and then to observe that the Indians cultivate chiefly the latter, the Spaniards the former?  We are accustomed to conceiving of communication as only interhuman, for since the "world" is not a subject, our dialogue with it is quite asymmetrical (if there is any such dialogue at all).  But this is perhaps a narrow view of the matter, one responsible moreover for our feeling of superiority in this regard.  The notion would be more productive if it were extended to include, alongside the interaction of individual with individual, the interaction that occurs between the person and his social group, the person and the natural world, the person and the religious universe.  And it is this second type of communication that plays a predominant part in the life of Aztec man, who interprets the divine, the natural, and the social through indices and omens, and with the help of that professional, the prophet-priest.


cf. Anaya, Bless Me, Ultima, in which mother's family talks to plants




Begin Song of Solomon, chapters 1 & 2 (through p. 55)  

How can you tell that you're in "classic fiction?" What are some of the markers of high literary quality (both for good and ill)?

What kind of relationship between "literary" qualities and "minority" issues? Which is foremost?

obj. 3: "dream" narrative

Song: sub-category of "dream" narrative: "Flying Africans"--persistent legend / myth in Af Am culture that original people could fly--repeated in much contemporary literature


How can you tell that you're in "classic fiction?" What are some of the markers of high literary quality (both for good and ill)?

first 3 pages: extraordinary opening scene elevates twice more

use of color


+ mythic level, folk tradition



Song of Solomon

possible attribute of Morrison's "greatness":

characterization is a dependable feature of great literature--the ability to create numerous characters who don't look or act like each other (or the author) but "stand on their own feet"

Examples: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Faulkner,



Song of Solomon: titanic characters, like there's no one else in the world, nothing that matters except their lives--compare Greek tragedy: it all matters--even a twerp like Milkman has stature


mythic, titanic stature of characters >

mythic background that deepens the significance of their background, gives symbols a context in which to operate

quality witnessed in "High Modernism" such as Joyce's Ulysses or William Faulkner's novels of Mississippi (The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom!, Light in August, Go Down, Moses)

Joyce, Faulkner extend mythical patterns to Ireland, southern USA

Morrison extends to African America


Most brilliant line:

Solomon / Sugarman

Jewish king noted for wisdom

Connects to Ethiopia through Queen of Sheba, Ethiopian Coptic church and Ethiopian Jews--in other words, a pre-slavery connection of Judeo-Christian characters & narratives with Black Africa


expansion of sensorium 173 (ch. 8)

40-41 black, rainbow


47 purple


185 deeper darkness

examples from Beloved


How does African America become "dominant" minority in American literature?

Equiano a multitude of black people, of every description, chained together

Africans of all languages

Conclusion: African Americans cannot retain their African languages b/c no one to speak them with; they are forced to learn English

Contrast Native Americans and Mexican Americans, who sometimes retain non-English languages for generations (good in some respects, but limits development of literature and readership in English)

African American literature begins in late 1700s, early 1800s; Abolition movement before Civil War (mid-1800s); Harlem Renaissance (1910s-20s); Civil Rights era (1960s), Black Arts Movement (1960s-70s), ascendance of African American women writers in recent decades


Distinctness of African American speech?

What know on subject?



African American Vernacular English




survivals of African language

words: banjo, okra, beautifully musical languages; both absorbed into mainstream

pronunciations: genteel southern accent is African


political—large-scale political issues in USA have centered around African Americans, from slavery & the Civil War through civil rights to affirmative action; writers respond to crises and contribute their voices

So, Af Ams share in mainstream discourse to an unchallenged degree, yet still distinct voice and tradition



What kind of relationship between "literary" qualities and "minority" issues? Which is foremost?

"Dream" narrative as opposed to "American Dream"

+ Flying African theme