Black (Im)mobilities

African American men and women, some with bundles on their heads, running across a wooded landscape.

Syllabus Production Details

Developer: Meg Dobbins Contact

Peer Reviewer: Patricia A. Matthew

Syllabus Cluster Developer: Ryan D. Fong Contact

Cluster Title: Centering Black Studies

Publication Date: 2021

Syllabus Overview

Download the peer-reviewed syllabus:  PDF  |  Word

This upper-level, writing-intensive undergraduate seminar explores forms of Black mobility (human trafficking, diaspora, im/emigration, settlerism etc.) forced, encouraged, or made possible in the global economy of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. Mobility, as the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, pertains to “the ability to move or to be moved,” the “capacity for movement or change of place,” and the ideas of “movableness, portability.” This course challenges and expands these definitions, centering on lived and imagined experiences of Black mobility and immobility. Some of our key questions include: How and why do Black people, ideas, labor, and stories become moveable, portable, and exchangeable? What individual and social patterns of movement – and countermovement – are created and sustained by the shifting spaces and demands of global capitalism? How do we read and write the story of Black mobility? What moves and is moved by Black people, Black stories, and Black histories?

Texts have been selected to foreground the voices (both extant and missing) of mobile Black subjects of empire (e.g., the murdered passengers on the ship Zong, Olaudah Equiano, Ottobah Cugoano, Mary Seacole, and others). These texts bring neglected stories of Black precarity, insecurity, aporia, and itineracy into closer focus, while decentering the Victorian narratives of progress, upward mobility, self-help, and white domestic stability that tend to be privileged in accounts of this early capitalist history. Primary texts are activated critically and theoretically vis-à-vis a handful of twenty-first century frameworks including “the wake” (Christina Sharpe), imperial “intimacies” (Lisa Lowe), queer “crosscurrents” (Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley), the “undercommons” (Fred Moten and Stefano Harney), and urban Black “waywardness” (Saidiya Hartman). These secondary readings will enable students to develop an exigent set of flexible, anti-racist methods for future writing and study on socioeconomic topics connected to class, labor, and inequality. Most of the texts we read will be by Black authors.

This upper-level course is also a writing intensive course, which means that participants agree to invest daily effort not only in extensive reading but in writing and rewriting as active modes of learning and critical thinking. In “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” Audre Lorde reflects on how many ideas and experiences are “intolerable,” “incomprehensible,” and “frightening,” until they are processed (distilled) through dreams and poetry. Immersive, daily writing can function similarly as the work that precedes and lays the foundation for the tolerance and comprehension of new ideas. At minimum, intensive writing can help students become better readers. Ideally, writing intensively allows students to test possibilities for decolonial, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist scholarship and praxis.

The work students commit to in this course aligns closely with what Sharpe describes as “wake work” – i.e., the work that takes place in the wake of the still unfolding trauma of transatlantic enslavement and the “unfinished project of emancipation.” Wake work can include surviving, celebrating, keeping watch with the dead, and imagining new ways of Black being. Working in the wake also means waking up, raising Black consciousness, becoming aware and responsive to antiblackness, and striving to rupture the epistemes of white supremacy and violence. By the end of the course, students will have acquired a better understanding of the position they occupy in the wake (Where are we? How did we get here?) and how they intend to respond from this place of knowledge (Now that I know, what will I do? What can happen next?)

Over the course of the semester, students will move through five major writing assignments blending traditional academic methods (close reading, peer-reviewed research, etc.), with newer, more experimental, open-ended, mobile, and interdisciplinary forms of socioeconomic inquiry. Assignments include: (1) a revised close reading, (2), a comparative report and critical review of a set of archives on a topic of the student’s choice relevant to Black life and experience, (3) a two-part Autobiographical Reflection and Oral History (4) a 15-page innovative paper on a topic developed with guidance, and (5) a mini-conference-style presentation and Q&A.

These approaches are derived from and modeled by the literature, criticism, and theory studied in the course. Primary and secondary sources serve as models that students might take up, try out, and experiment with as they continue to develop their own personal and critical approaches to writing about Black (im)mobilities. Throughout the semester, students will engage actively with the movement of their own and others’ ideas and opinions in writing and class discussion. Informal weekly writing will accompany major writing assignments, and we will devote time in class to process writing, learning about different styles and citational practices meaningful to Black studies, conferencing, and collaborating in various modes of peer review and workshop.

Works Cited

Hartman, Saidiya V. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals. W. W. Norton & Company, 2019.

Lorde, Audre. “Poetry Is Not a Luxury.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Crossing Press, 1984, pp. 36–39.

Lowe, Lisa. The Intimacies of Four Continents. Duke University Press, 2015.

Moten, Fred and Stefano Harney. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study Book. Minor Compositions, 2013.

Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press, 2016.

Tinsley, Natasha Omise’eke. “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passage.” GLQ, vol. 14, no. 2–3, 2008, pp. 191–215.

Centering Black Studies Series

This cluster of syllabi centers the insights and contributions of Black Studies to rethink and remake Victorian Studies and the category of the “Victorian” itself. The syllabi do so by not only incorporating critical frameworks drawn from Black scholars like Christina Sharpe, Sylvia Wynter, Saidiya Hartman, and Tiffany Lethabo King (among others), but also by centering literary works by Black authors from the nineteenth century and showcasing the theoretical interventions they offer in their own right. Using these texts as the point of entry for thinking about texts from the white Victorian canon and an array of other texts by non-Black writers of color, each of the three courses engage in the forms of rigorous engagement, learning, and unlearning that are necessary to address and remedy the anti-Blackness that has structured our field.

Developer Biography

Meg Dobbins is an Assistant Professor of literature in the English department at Eastern Michigan University. Previously, she worked as a Lecturer at Northern Arizona University. Her articles have appeared in Victorian Literature and Culture, Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, and Nineteenth-Century Contexts. She is currently completing her first monograph Queer Economic Dissonance and Victorian Literature. She is also working on a second book project that explores toxic circulations and commodifications of Rudyard Kipling in the twenty-first century. Her research and teaching interests include the history of capitalism, economic literary studies, gender and sexuality, queer theory, and post/de-colonial studies.

Header Image Caption

Kaufmann, Theodor. “On to Liberty.” 1867. The Met, 1982.443.3. Public domain. Gift of Erving and Joyce Wolf, in memory of Diane R. Wolf, 1982.

Page/Syllabus Citation (MLA)

Meg Dobbins, dev. “Black (Im)mobilities.” Patricia A. Matthew, peer rev.; Ryan D. Fong, syllabus cluster dev. Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom, 2021,