Writing about Literature: Antiphony: Call-and-Response in African American Literature (online)

ENGL 2100
Christopher Okonkwo
Course Description

This course introduces students to the vernacular theory of Antiphony or Call-and-Response, the roots of which are in music. You may have heard some literary theorists and critics say, in their discussion of African American letters, that writers and works of the tradition are, among other things, antiphonal. They “call” as well as “respond.” In other words, African American novelists, novels, and non-fiction prose, in this case, talk to one another, sometimes generationally, and also respond either directly or otherwise to what writers and works of other traditions say and how they say it. Our main goal in this course, then, is to critically explore manifestations of that reading mode, antiphony—alongside its cousin registers: signifyin(g), dialogue, intertextuality—in African American literature. We will ground our discussion in relevant selections from works by theorists and critics, and then read illustrative fiction and essays by such twentieth-century writers as Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Ernest J. Gaines. So, you ask, what will I ultimately get out of the class? Plenty, I assure you. In addition to gaining a deep appreciation of the centrality of antiphony and signifyin(g) to African American canon formation, you will come out of the class with this “absolutely shocking” revelation, namely: that while black women writers generally see textual production in terms of sisterly cooperation, acknowledgment and affirmation, some black male writers position themselves rather competitively. That is, as exemplified in the Wright-Baldwin-Ellison contestation over the Protest Tradition, the male writers sometimes distance and disavow their male literary forebears in what critic Harold Bloom, in another context, calls the “anxiety of influence.”