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Writing Sex: Contemporary Black Women Writers

Class: MW 4:00-5:40pm

Prof. SaraEllen Strongman 5506 Haven Hall

Office Hours T 12:30-3:00pm

“Called Matriarch, Emasculator and Hot Momma. Sometimes Sister, Pretty Baby, Auntie, Mammy and Girl. Called Unwed Mother, Welfare Recipient and Inner City Consumer. The Black American Woman has had to admit that while nobody knew the troubles she saw, everybody, his brother, and his dog, felt qualified to explain her, even to herself.” Trudier Harris

Given that their image in cultural and political conversations has more often than not been dominated by negative stereotypes and the opinions of others, how have Black women defined themselves and their sexuality for themselves? This course focuses on the post-Civil Rights era, in particular the 1970s and 1980s, and the Black women’s literary renaissance that occurred during these decades to explore how Black women took up these topics in their work. What do contemporary Black women writers think about sex? How have they represented or elided the importance of sexuality in their writing? We will explore themes including racialized sexuality, queerness, rebellion, and reproduction through the lens of work by Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and others. Literature and poetry will be paired with readings in Black Feminist Theory to deepen and historically situate our inquiries.

Required Course Texts

Sula (1973) by Toni Morrison

The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker

The Women of Brewster Place (1982) by Gloria Naylor

Corregidora (1975) by Gayl Jones

*All other readings will be on the course Canvas site*

Course Information and Guidelines

Given the subject of this class, many of the topics in this course will be hard to talk about. The works we will read include discussions of sexual violence, racism, sexism, and domestic abuse, as well as other difficult topics. Our in-class discussions will also be intellectually and emotionally challenging. I will do my best to create a supportive classroom environment where we can discuss these topics bravely together with the seriousness that they deserve. I understand that each of you will bring your own unique experiences and backgrounds with you into the classroom and that these things will shape your experiences of this class and especially of our discussions of difficult topics. I ask that likewise you keep this in mind about your peers. We have no way of knowing anyone else’s

life. As such, please do not make assumptions or generalizations based on your own experiences. I also ask that you respect each other’s opinions and beliefs, even if they may be different from your own. In class, when we are discussing ideas and you disagree with each other, be sure to challenge or critique an idea and not the person voicing it. Above all please be open-minded and make space for others to do the same.

Class Attendance

Consistent, on time attendance is expected in this course. In order to participate in the course and get the most out of it, you need to be in class. However, I understand that things happen. As such, each student has up to three (3) “unexcused” absences per semester without the need for documentation and without penalty. You do not need to tell me why you are unable to attend class, but you do need to notify me ahead of time that you will not be in attendance.

Any absences without documentation or prior approval beyond the two (2) “unexcused” absences may result in a reduction to your overall grade and necessitate a meeting with me.


I am committed to supporting all students. If you think you may need an accommodation for a disability, please let me know at the beginning of the term. Next, you should contact the Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) office. Once your eligibility for an accommodation has been determined, you will be issued a Verified Individual Services Accommodation (VISA) form and we can arrange for your accommodation. Any information you provide is private and confidential and will be treated as such. If you already have a VISA form from SSD, please present this form to me at the beginning of the term, but no later than at least two weeks prior to the need for the accommodation so that there is enough time for the appropriate arrangements to be made.

Additionally, if you do not have a documented disability, but believe you need an accommodation, please visit me during office hours to discuss your options.

Student Well-Being and Basic Needs

In order to be academically successful, you must be well—mentally, emotionally, and physically. Both the University of Michigan as a whole and I, personally, are committed to advancing the health and well-being of students. If you need support or other services, there are many resources available including Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) (734.764.8312), Psychiatric Emergency Services (734.996.4747), the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center (SAPAC) (24-Hour Line: 734.936.3333), and others.

In addition, any student who faces challenges securing their food or housing and believes this may affect their performance in the course is urged to contact the Dean of Students for support. Furthermore, please notify me if you are comfortable in doing so. This will enable me to help connect you to resources like Student Food Co. and Maize & Blue Cupboard and to assist you in navigating university offices to secure support.

Academic Misconduct

The University of Michigan community functions best when its members treat one another with honesty, fairness, respect, and trust. The college promotes the assumption of personal responsibility and integrity, and prohibits all forms of academic dishonesty and misconduct. All cases of academic misconduct will be referred to the Office of the Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education. Being found responsible for academic misconduct will usually result in a grade sanction, in addition to any sanction from the college. For more information, including examples of behaviors that are considered academic misconduct and potential sanctions, please see

Course Requirements and Grading

Participation (50%): Class participation is the primary assessment for the overall course grade. Students are expected to complete each week’s reading and participate consistently and enthusiastically in class discussion. Substantive engagement with the assigned materials is valued over volume, as such asking questions is encouraged and counts as participation.

Writing Assignments (35%): The there are three individual written assignments. The two shorter assignments each count for 10% of your final grade. The first two writing assignments are assessments and an opportunity for you to practice what we are discussing in class. As such, they will be “pass/fail.The “midterm” essay counts for 15% and will receive a letter grade.

Final Group Presentations (15%): Each student is required to do a group, in-class presentation at the end of the semester. The presentation will be accompanied by a written report and reflection. Students will be graded on the presentation, the written report, and their individual contributions to the project.

My expectation is that you will meet all deadlines to the best of your ability. If you need an extension, please let me know at least 24 hours before the due date so that we can discuss possibilities. Otherwise, late work will be subject to a grade penalty.


***All assignments will be submitted via Canvas. Please note that they are due at 5:00pm EST***

Writing Assignment #1: Using Patricia Hill Collins’s concept and catalog of “controlling images,” analyze the representation of a Black female character in one of the stories we have read so far. Write a 1-2pg paper considering how this character conforms to and/or challenges one or more or the stereotypes that Collins describes.

Writing Assignment #2: Create either a personals ad/Tinder profile or a Women’s March sign for one of the Black women characters we have read about so far. Feel free to use present-day language or slang or even analogical situations to reflect and encapsulate their struggles and concerns. Write a

2-3pg paper explaining the content of your profile or sign that draws on at least one secondary course reading.

Writing Assignment #3: In 1937, Richard Wright in a scathing review of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God wrote, "Miss Hurston seems to have no desire whatsoever to move in the direction of serious fiction… [She] can write; but her prose is cloaked in that facile

sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phyllis Wheatley

and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow

orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears."

Her characters eat

Less than fifty year later, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple would receive a torrent of critical reviews for its representation of Black Southern lives, especially the relationship between Black men and women. In a 4-6pg, compare Wright’s critique of Hurston to the content and tone of critiques leveled at Walker, Michele Wallace, and Ntozake Shange in sources from class and additional reviews (see Canvas). What is it about these women’s writing that upsets these Black male (and female) critics? Do you agree or disagree with their assessment? Why or why not? Use evidence from the critiquing texts and the novel The Color Purple itself.

Final Group Presentations: These group presentations will consist of the creation of a Story Map or WordPress site, an in-class presentation, and accompanying written paper (6-10pp). The group’s work will be evaluated overall and so will each individual’s contributions, by incorporating feedback from the other group members. Grading will primarily evaluate 1) incorporation and synthesis of ideas and concepts from course readings and discussions, 2) use of additional materials to craft and support an argument, and 3) creativity of presentation materials and style.

***All assignments should be formatted as 12pt in a standard font (Times New Roman, Calibri, etc.), double-spaced, with 1” margins. Please upload as .pdf or .doc or .docx files.***

Course Readings and Deadlines

Wednesday, January 9


Learning Goals

Monday, January 14

The Combahee River Collective Statement

Patricia Hill Collins, “Mammies, Matriarchs, and Other Controlling Images”

Evelyn Higginbotham, “Black (W)holes and the Geometry of Female Sexuality

Wednesday, January 16

Toni Cade Bambara, “The Johnson Girls”

Shirley Ann Williams, “Tell Martha Not to Moan”

Monday, January 21

MLK Symposium – NO CLASS

Wednesday, January 23

Audre Lorde, “Tar Beach”

Audre Lorde, “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic As Power”

Laura Harris, “Queer Black Feminism: The Pleasure Principle”

Monday, January 28

Shirley Anne Williams, “Meditations on History”

Treva B. Lindsey and Jessica Marie Johnson. "Searching for climax: Black erotic lives in slavery and freedom." Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 12.2 (2014): 169-195.

Wednesday, January 30

Toni Morrison, Sula, through “1921”

Toni Morrison, “Foreword” to Sula

***First Writing Assignment due FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 1***

Monday, February 4

Sula: through “1927” (end of Part One)

Barbara Smith

, “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism”

Wednesday, February 6

Sula: all of Part Two

Sara Blackburn, “You Can’t Go Home Again,” The New York Times, December 30, 1973

Alice Walker, “Letter to the Editor,” The New York Times, January 20, 1974

Monday, February 11

Alice Walker, “Advancing Luna and Ida B Wells”

Louise Meriweather, “A Happening in Barbados”

Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism”

Wednesday, February 13

Alice Walker, “A Letter of the Times, or Should this Sadomasochism be Saved?”

Pat Parker, “bar conversation”

Jennifer Nash, “Archives of Pain: Reading the Black Feminist Theoretical Archive” from The Black Body in Ecstasy

Monday, February 18

Alice Walker, The Color Purple: pp 1-79

Alice Walker, “Writing the Color Purple”

Wednesday, February 20

The Color Purple: pp 80-125

Hazel Carby, "It Jus Be’s That Way Sometime: The Sexual Politics of Women’s Blues."

Monday, February 25

The Color Purple: pp 126-207

Wednesday, February 27

The Color Purple: pp 208-end

Barbara Smith, “Sexual Oppression Unmasked,” Callaloo 22 (1984)

***Second Writing Assignment due FRIDAY, MARCH 1***

Monday, March 4 and Wednesday, March 6


Monday, March 11

Steven Spielberg, The Color Purple (1985)

Trudier Harris, “On The Color Purple, Stereotypes, and Silence,” Black American Literature Forum vol. 18, no. 4 (1984)

Jacqueline Bobo, “Text and Subtext: The Color Purple”; “The Color Purple: Black Women as Cultural Readers”

Wednesday, March 13

Robert Staples, “The Myth of Black Macho: A Response to Angry Black Feminists”

Audre Lorde, “The Great American Disease”

Monday, March 18

“Black Women Writers,” Phil Donahue Show, 1989

Ann duCille, “Phallus(ies) of Interpretation: Toward Engendering the Black Critical ‘I’”

Wednesday, March 20

Final Project Workshops/Office Hours

****Third Writing Assignment Due FRIDAY, MARCH 22 ***

Monday, March 25

Gloria Naylor, The Women of Brewster Place: pp 1-88 (through “Kiswana Brown”)

Wednesday, March 27

The Women of Brewster Place: pp 89-127 (through “Cora Lee”)

Monday, April 1

The Women of Brewster Place : pp 129-the end (“The Two,” “The Block Party,” and “Dusk”)

Cheryl Clarke, “Lesbianism: An Act of Resistance”

Wednesday, April 3

In Class Group Project Planning

Monday, April 8

Gayl Jones, Corregidora: Chapter I

Wednesday, April 10

Corregidora: Chapter II

Monday, April 15

Corregidora: Chapter III, IV, and V

Wednesday, April 17

Group Presentations

Monday, April 22

Group Presentations