Celebrating African American literature

  • Old Main 1971
    Old Main, 1971 yearbook
  • Old Main 1971
    Old Main, 1971 yearbook

On June 19, 1863, Union Army general Gordon Granger proclaimed freedom for enslaved people in Texas under President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, General Order No. 3.  Texas was the last Confederate state with institutional slavery. Today, we celebrate the 157th anniversary of the last African American slaves being freed.

Last year, Juneteenth National Independence Day Act was signed into law as a federal holiday to commemorate Juneteenth - the first federal holiday approved since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983. 

In celebration of the federal holiday, Nebraska Wesleyan is taking a look back at African American Literature, a topic, and NWU course, with significant history. 

NWU's African American Literature course 

Nebraska Wesleyan has offered an African American Literature course through the English department for many decades.

In recent years, Professor of English Gerise Herndon has instructed the course with the goal for students to learn about African American cultural identity while reflecting on their own sense of identity. "We look at the legacy of Black American culture and reckon with its relationship to the present," stated Herndon. "The texts, both oral and written, offer a place to examine the possibilities of artistic production and identity creation within specific cultural constraints."

The course has not always been an integral part of Nebraska Wesleyan's curriculum. In the 1971 yearbook, students and employees advocated for a "Black Literature" course to be made a permanent part of the curriculum at Nebraska Wesleyan. In the yearbook, Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Joyce Wike wrote, "The study of Black Literature contributes to the identification and transformation of stereotypes in two ways. The authors are themselves representatives of the largest minority in this country. They usually portray in their writing vivid part of the perspective, the lifeway, the struggles of their people. [We] can scarcely overlook the richness and variety of their literary achievements."

Today, the course counts towards the English and is a requirement for American Minority Studies minors. Any Nebraska Wesleyan student can take the course to fulfill several Archway Curriculum requirements. 

African American literature  

Black scholars - past and present - offer influential works representing historical accounts, personal narratives. social climates and more. "[In class,] we discuss the meaning of literature and culture within the tensions of the demands for self-determination by this historically marginalized group," said Herndon. "The course considers just a tiny slice of African American literature and culture, some canonical, some recent. The semester is a brief introduction to a vast and powerful tradition and a vibrant ongoing germination." Select works from the African American Literature course include: 


Beloved by Toni Morrison

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Toni Morrison tells the story of Sethe, a formerly enslaved woman. Sethe faces her unthinkable past each day, including the death of her baby. When a mysterious young girl arrives bearing the name of her deceased baby, Sethe is forced to address the tragedies of her past.  

The novel was inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner, an enslaved person who escaped and fled to Ohio. Garner was subject to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This novel was a finalist for the 1987 National Book Award and was adapted to a movie in 1998 starring Oprah Winfrey.


Classic Slave Narratives

Classic Slave Narratives edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. presents four classic narratives which document the black experience of slavery. The collection showcases firsthand histories of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Mary Prince and Olaudah Equiano. These stories represent a fraction of narratives from the time, but teach readers the horrors of bondage and servitude.





Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Set in 1930s, the novel follows Janie Crawford as she navigates gender roles, skin color and patriarchal norms. Described as fair, articulate and independent, Janie is on a quest to find her own identity – a journey that leads back to her beginnings.

In 2005, TIME named the novel to their list of 100 best English-language novels published since 1923.




Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Written as a letter to the author’s adolescent son, Ta-Nehisi Coates shares the realities of being black in the United States. The book draws upon past experiences, reimagined history, and current coverage to confront the ongoing obstacles of black Americans.

The book was a 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction recipient and a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction finalist.



I Am Not Sidney Portier

I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett

Published in 2009, Percival Everett tells the story of Not Sidney Poitier, a young man with an unfortunate name. This hilarious novel follows Not Sidney as he addresses his perplexing name, staggering new wealth and a resemblance to a famous actor. The novel explores social hierarchy and the nuances of skin color and wealth.




Nebraska Wesleyan is proud to support the culture and works of African Americans. Our commitment to showcasing the works of diverse scholars goes far beyond this one course, and is an integral part of our identity and curriculum. Learn more about Nebraska Wesleyan's core value of diversity. We also invite you to explore NWU's Archway Curriculum and diversity-instructive courses.