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African American Literature and Language

African American Literature and Language

The program in African American Literature and Language at Penn State has been ranked by US News and World Report among the top ten in the nation’s public institutions. Our research faculty, critics, and poets have won three American Book Awards, the Josephine Miles Award, the Darwin Turner Award and others, and our professors have served in leadership roles in such organizations as the African American Literature and Culture Society, the National Council of Teachers of English and the Conference on College Composition and Communication.

Our faculty have published books with such major presses as Cambridge University, University of Massachusetts, University of Illinois, University of North Carolina, University of Alabama, Indiana University, University of Minnesota, Southern Illinois University, Wayne State University, Syracuse University, Heinemann, and Routledge. Our articles have appeared regularly in such academic and popular journals as Callaloo, MELUS, Phylon, African American Review, The Massachusetts Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, College English, College Language Association Journal, Diacritics, Western Journal of Black Studies, Black World, The World & I, Mark Twain Journal and American Book Review.

Recent Grad Courses

  • Contemporary Black American Gay, Science Fiction, and Detective Novels
  • Proseminar in African American Literature
  • Neorealism, Modernism, and Postmodernism in the Contemporary African American Novel
  • The Contemporary African American Novel and the New Black Aesthetic
  • Black Theory and Criticism
  • Third World Feminisms
  • Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance
  • African American Poetry and Poetics
  • Seminar in African American Rhetoric
  • Literacies and Discourse Practices of Afro-diasporic Cultures
  • African American Playwrights
  • African American Literature and Folklore

Our faculty have also offered seminars in such related fields as Caribbean and African literatures.

Conferences and Events: Celebrating African American Literature Conference and Lecture Series

Penn State’s African American Literature and Language faculty sponsor numerous conferences and lectures. The biannual Celebrating African American Literature (CAAL) conference brings together top scholars in the field along with emerging junior faculty scholars and graduates students. The 2009 conference was on “Contemporary African American Literature” and featured authors Mat Johnson and Alice Randall. Proceedings from this conference are forthcoming in Contemporary African American Literature: The Living Canon (Indiana UP 2012). The most recent conference was on “African American Literature, Race and Sexual Identity” (2011) and featured such prominent figures as E. Patrick Johnson, Randall Kenan, Sharon Bridgforth and Charles Nero. The CAAL conference evolved from a long tradition of celebrating and fostering African American literary and rhetorical studies at Penn State. The African American Tradition Series (AATS) summer conferences were initiated in 1994 by Professor B. W. Bell, the Department of English, and the Institute for the Arts and Humanities (IAH, now the Humanities Institute) in order to stimulate the appreciation and understanding of African American arts and literature. Conferences in the African American Voices series have included “Language, Literature, and Criticism in Vernacular Theory and Pedagogy” (1994), “African American Traditions” (1997), “The Legacy of the Harlem Renaissance” (1998), “The Blues Tradition” (with African and African American Studies, 2000), and “Celebrating the African American Novel” (2005). In addition to these major conferences and events, the African American Literature and Language group has hosted a number of visiting speakers, including Victor Hernandez Cruz, Paul Carter Harrison, Evie Shockley, Robert O’Meally, Sterling Plumpp. Geneva Smitherman, Hortense Spillers, Lamont B. Steptoe, James B. Stewart, Askia M. Toure, Quincy Troupe, Al Young, Jayne Cortez, Keith Leonard, Rolland Murray, Jerry Ward and many others.

Related Centers and Resources: Africana Research Center

As their web site states, “The Africana Research Center [ARC] encourages and supports research and scholarship that (a) enhances the lives of Africans across the Diaspora (i.e., African peoples in the Americas, Africa, Europe, and Asia), and [that] (b) serves as a catalyst for promoting an enabling environment where cultural productions and discourse on diversity can be nurtured to advance the research, teaching, and outreach mission of Penn State.” The Center provides faculty and student research grants and support and sponsors numerous events and visiting speakers.

Research Resources in the Penn State University Library System

The University library system has more than five million volumes and 58,000 periodicals, as well as excellent on-line access to reference sources for African American history, including JSTOR, literature, and visual arts. Also available are a number of collections containing texts documenting the experiences of African Americans, ranging from American Colonization Records, 1792-1964 and Black Abolitionist Papers, 1830-1865 to the Papers of the Congress of Racial Equality, 1941-1967 and Papers of the NAACP. The University Library system also houses Penn State’s Charles L. Blockson Collection of African Americana and the African Diaspora. “The collection, which is not yet fully cataloged, includes approximately 10,000 items, the majority of which are books that cover a wide range of subjects. There are also collections of sheet music, postcards, record albums, and manuscript materials (letters, photographs, posters, and programs) that document the lives of influential African Americans, with a special emphasis on Paul Robeson.” ( The George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center, which has won a million dollar challenge grant from the NEH, is an excellent resource with its extensive collection of materials for interpreting and reflecting on the period from the Mexican War through the end of Reconstruction.

Graduate Faculty

Critical Theory and Cultural Studies; American Literature after 1900; Black American Literature and Film; Film Studies

African American literature, Black intellectual and literary histories, Black women's biography, folklore studies

African American poetry and poetics, Jazz and literature, early African American writing, theory and criticism, diasporic studies (especially Caribbean and African), critical race studies.

Graduate Students

18th-19th c. narratives & fiction

Black Print Culture

Archival practices and theory