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First-Year Research Seminar: To Tell a Free? Story: Black Autobiography from Confinement

Semester and Year SP 2018
Course Number FIRST-UG776
Section 001
Instructor Sybil Cooksey
Days TR
Time 2:00 PM - 3:15 PM
Units 4
Level U


Open to Gallatin first-year students only.


In  To Tell a Free Story , William L. Andrews posits the origin of the black autobiographical tradition in slave narratives, wherein the escaped or emancipated are able to exercise authentic selfhood and seize authorial power through the writing of their life stories. While most canonical works in the genre fit this model, many others do not. What, then is to be said about black autobiographers for whom escape is improbable and freedom is a more tenuous, elusive or ambiguous experience? This course examines the degree to which confinement (containment, constraint) emerges as a feature, a circumstance and even a condition of possibility for black autobiography. We will study alternative autobiographical texts that rest on the telling of decidedly unfree stories, including: slaves’ and ex-slaves’ “confessions” dictated from jail cells on the eve of their executions; songs, tales and interviews by inmates in Southern prisons during the Jim Crow era; testimonies from inside the nation’s prisons brought to us by reality television series such as  Lockup  and  Lockdown  ; writings by CLR James, Paul Robeson, Chester Himes and women participants in Free Space in the 1970s. Among the questions raised are: How does confinement figure in these autobiographical narratives? Should autobiographical projects carried out in fraught relations with producers, collectors, and handlers be dismissed as less authentic than writings? Ultimately, can our study of black autobiography from confinement potentially challenge, extend and complicate the tradition? Alongside these questions, expect to discuss issues of method, politics and ethics that archival research involves.


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Course Type

First-Year Program: Research Seminars (FIRST-UG)