Writing Literature, Writing Race: Syllabus

Below is the description and course reading list for a writing class I designed and am teaching in Spring 2016 in the English Department at UC Davis.

English 003: Introduction to Literature: Black and White and Read All: Writing Literature, Writing Race

Race is read all over: thinking about race and, especially, thinking that is shaped by ideas about race, is global and constant, from college campuses in the United States, to Paris, Brazil, South Africa, just about everywhere. Though each location and social situation is unique in its thinking about race, race is something we think we “see”; it can shape what we think we know about particular human beings; it can shape our behavior and treatment of others; it can affect our life circumstances, opportunities, and hazards. But what is “race”? We often use the term “race” to refer to groupings of humans who share (or seem to share) distinct physical phenotypical traits. And in practice race is also often used to refer to cultural traits. But in both of these cases, after scratching the surface there are many complexities and contradictions that make simple categorizations quite problematic. Why? Race is a social construction, meaning simply that “race” is an idea created by humans to explain or understand the world. So some scholars argue that racism—as expressions of how people are thinking about race—is not only a useful way to understand “race” as a socially constructed idea but perhaps its defining characteristic: racism makes race. Race (and other social constructions) is a flexible concept that change over time and place, and can differ depending on the society in which they are used. As a social construction, we can look to an unlikely place to better understand race: literature and culture, expressions human experience and human thought. The creative expression of literature shows us what people see, think, and imagine about their world in particular places and times. Importantly, literature is not simply about recording knowledge; literature makes new knowledge that shapes society. So literature also creates understandings of race. Thus, to write literature is also to write race.

In this course, we will read literature from the 16th century to the present in order to think deeply about race and racism. We will:

  • Examine how writers have thought about race, racial identity, and racism
  • Track the development of ideas about race over time and place
  • Think about racialization as a process in which racial identity is shaped and assigned
  • Deconstruct simplistic thinking about race, such as the “black-white binary”
  • Consider how race and racism can be expressed in literary genres and forms
  • Analyze culture to understand development of a social construct, an approach you can take to other social constructions such as gender, sexuality, class, religion, the environment, etc.

English 3 is a writing course. English 3 is also a course in which we will read literature. In order to learn skills and strategies that will help you to write at a university level, we will read, analyze, and write about poetry, fiction, and drama written in English from the early modern period (the 16th and 17th centuries) to the present.

We will develop a toolbox of terms, concepts, and approaches that will help you to talk and write about literature; at the same time we will use these tools—and add others—in order to compose, examine, and revise your own writing. Though the writing you do in this course will focus on literature, the skills that you will learn can be useful in many other writing situations, whether in school, in your personal life, or at work. It is my goal to make the class enjoyable and useful for you.

In this course we will:

  • Engage in critical readings of fiction, poetry, non-fiction prose, and drama
  • Consider the interaction between literary form and content
  • Use the writing process to brainstorm, plan, compose, and revise essays of literary analysis
  • Think about audience, rhetoric, and genres of literary analysis
  • Consider the wider applications for and transferable skills gained from writing about literature

Course Reading List


Jack London, “A Relic of the Pliocene” (1911)

W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Comet” (1920)

Sui Sin Far, “The Americanizing of Pau Tsu” (1912)

Sherman Alexie, “Dear John Wayne” (2000)

Toni Morrison, “Recitatif” (1983)

Jess Row, Your Face in Mine (2015)


Phillis Wheatley, “To Maecenas” (1773)

William Cowper, “The Negro’s Complaint” (1788) and “Pity for Poor Africans” (1788)

Frances Harper, “Slave Mother: A Tale of Ohio” (1855)

Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus” (1883)

Defoe, “True Born Englishman” (1701)

Derek Walcott, from “The Schooner Flight” (1979)

Gloria Anzaldua, from Borderlands (1987)

Michelle Tafolla, “La Malinche” (1978)

Suheir Muhammad, “First Writing Since (Poem on Crisis of Terror)” (2001)

Chingo Bling, “They Can’t Deport Us All” (2007)

Kendrick Lamar, “The Blacker the Berry” (2015)

Macklemore, “White Privilege 2” (2016)

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric

Non-Fiction Prose/Essay

From Great Newes from the Barbadoes (1676)

Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees” (1943)

Mine Okubo, from Citizen 13660 (1946)

Richard Rodriguez, “In the Brown Study” (2002)

Stuart Hall, “New Ethnicities” (1989)


William Shakespeare, excerpts from The Merchant of Venice (1598), Othello (1603), and The Tempest (1611)

David Henry Hwang, Yellow Face (2007)


Race: The Power of an Illusion (2000)

Stuart Hall Project (2013)

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