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Teaching Post-Black Aesthetics and the Coming-of-Age Novels of Danzy Senna and Colson Whitehead in Portugal: Reconsidering the Gap

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Abstract

This chapter examines the challenges of, and opportunities for, teaching African-American fiction in the academic environment in Portugal, a country where colonial domination ended only in the mid-1970s after an anti-independence war fought for thirteen years in Africa. Interest among all Portuguese in their nation’s recent past, as well as the presence of numerous Afro-Portuguese citizens in the country, has made studying African-American authors especially relevant. These writers are seen as not only speaking to the American present state of race relations but, in many ways, creating a bridge to the contemporary experiences and interrogations of Portuguese students. Yet there seems to be a generation gap between earlier African-American writers and the current generation, which has a different concept of what it means to be black in America. Botelho explores the implications of this change in the perception of “blackness” by examining two coming-of-age novels, Danzy Senna’s Caucasia and Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor. These texts rework a literary trope from classical African-American literature that Portuguese students immediately recognize, namely the passing narrative. Close reading of Senna’s and Whitehead’s novels helps Portuguese students identify signs that disrupt their preconceived expectations about African-American literature.

Keywords

  • Danzy Senna
  • Colson Whitehead
  • Blackness
  • Sag Harbor
  • Caucasia

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Notes

  1. 1.

    NOVA University was formally created in 1977, three years after the Carnation Revolution (a bloodless military insurgency against the one-state regime by young officers which opened the way to the institutionalization of a Constitutional democracy in 1976), in the capital of the country where an older public university also operates. It is part of YERUN (Young European Research Universities Network) along with seventeen other European universities.

  2. 2.

    Possible variants include English and American Studies and a combination of English and American Studies with French, Spanish, German, and Portuguese studies.

  3. 3.

    The seminar frequently welcomes graduates in Journalism, Film Studies, History of Art, Comparative Literature, or Education as well as a group of foreign students from the international Masters’ Program “Crossways and Cultural Narratives,” managed by a consortium of 12 universities from Europe and the American continent (Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil), of which NOVA is a partner.

  4. 4.

    Lang (2018) argues that survey courses, “often taught to large numbers of students in traditional lecture format,” tend to “skim surfaces with good intentions” and are “designed to provide historical and literary context” which will help students in their subsequent studies (2).

  5. 5.

    Seminars are three hours long, allowing for the balancing between what Biggs and Tang (2011) define as teacher-directed learning, peer-directed learning, and self-learning, whereby at least 20 minutes of each session is dedicated to small-group discussion (typically four students) around a topic guide provided in advance, followed by sharing of insights with other groups with different topics and by collective debate.

  6. 6.

    The seminar also visits other identity intersections, and the corpus includes Native-American, Asian-American, Latinx, and Arab-American novels and plays.

  7. 7.

    This colonial war started in 1961 and ended only after the Carnation Revolution of 1974. It was fought in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau.

  8. 8.

    In particular Bruce Nugent’s short story “Smoke Lilies and Jade” in Fire !! and the hypothesis of a potential queer subtext of Nella Larsen’s Passing , first put forward by Deborah McDowell (1986).

  9. 9.

    Senna, born in 1970, is the daughter of a white mother (novelist Fanny Howe) and a black father (author and editor Carl Senna).

  10. 10.

    The introduction of the category in the U.S. Census was being debated at the time. The option taken then was to allow respondents to indicate more than one race.

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Correspondence to Teresa Botelho .

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Botelho, T. (2022). Teaching Post-Black Aesthetics and the Coming-of-Age Novels of Danzy Senna and Colson Whitehead in Portugal: Reconsidering the Gap. In: Mazzeno, L.W., Norton, S. (eds) Contemporary American Fiction in the European Classroom. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-94166-6_13

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