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American Centuries: Literatures of Slavery and Freedom


Module description

The imagination of freedom has long been central to American self-understanding, and yet this concept has been stalked by its own negation from the nation’s earliest founding moments. This module explores the genealogy of American narratives of freedom and their troubling underside, slavery, from European contact to the present day. You will encounter writing from key periods in the evolution of these terms: American exploration, settlement and colonisation, slavery, the civil rights movement, and the contemporary call that ‘black lives matter’.

The module traces the development of slavery as well as the concept of race as a term that has played a determining role in shaping American history. Central to the module is literature authored by black subjects whose work has powerfully challenged America’s claim to be a unique experiment in freedom. In particular, we will trace the emergence and development of the genre of the slave narrative, a genre that has continued to speak to - and for - the black experience well into the post-slavery period. The module thus provides crucial literary and historical coordinates within which the contemporary resurgence of white supremacy in the United States can be understood.

Indicative module syllabus

Settling and Subjects

  • Captivity narratives (e.g. Mary Rowlandson versus internment)
  • The politics of orality, literacy (e.g. Indian Dialogues), Bible and native peoples


  • Slave narratives (e.g. Solomon Northup)
  • Progress, religious redemption, abolitionism
  • The early black Atlantic
  • John Marrant

Afterlives of Slavery

  • The post-abolition South and the emergence of racial consciousness (W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903))
  • The neo-slave narratives (The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965))
  • Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987)
  • The contemporary resurgence of interest in slavery (e.g. 12 Years a Slave, dir. Steve McQueen (2013) alongside a regressive ‘plantation nostalgia’
  • Legacies of racialized poverty (the writings of Jesmyn Ward)

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • demonstrate a knowledge of the development of strands of American literature
  • consider the role of literature in the creation of categories of race, nation and ethnicity
  • identify and explore the genres of the captivity narrative, the slave narrative and the neo-slave narrative
  • explore debates about slavery and freedom in American literature as they relate to specific periods and evolve through time
  • write about specific texts using close analysis and historical context.