The Literature of Riot: The Red Summer of 1919 and African American Literary History

Autumn 2019-2020


Noah Hansen

“The Red Summer of 1919” was a series of race riots that swept the U.S. at the end of WWI, marking a confluence of social tensions around race, labor, and migration with a wider crisis of the world imperial system. This course takes the centenary of 1919 as an opportunity to explore the Red Summer’s legacies in African American literature and political thought. Working in tandem with a series of public programs that aim to “confront the race riots,” we will examine how Black writers have responded directly and obliquely to the upheavals of 1919. Our archive, which includes selections from the early 20th century Black press, important literary treatments, and primary historical documents from, will facilitate a geographically and temporally layered understanding of the Red Summer. Moving from Chicago to D.C. to the seaports of Britain, and from 1919 to the present, we will engage multiple scales of the Red Summer’s significance for racial capitalist modernity. At stake conceptually in the course are questions of historical interpretation and cultural memory: How does one “read” the events of 1919, both as inscriptions of social tensions in their own time, and in relation to the succeeding historical developments that have shaped their memorialization? How do we, and how can we, read 1919 in 2019? Readings include Claude McKay, Cyril Briggs, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Alain Locke, Toni Morrison, and Eve Ewing (1830-1940; Fiction; Poetry).