LITR 5439 Literary & Historical Utopias

Web Review


African American literature:

Is utopia / dystopia a relevant critical category?

Objective 3f. Are utopias limited to Western Civilization, rationalism, and social engineering, or may they exemplify multiculturalism?

  • Is the utopian impulse universal or specific only to Western culture or civilization?

  • If utopias or millennia are detected in non-Western texts or traditions, are such terms appropriate, or do we simply project our identities and values on cultures that are in fact doing something else altogether?

African American culture joins Western culture via different routes, volitions, and traditions. Whereas Western Civilization progresses westward from the Mediterranean through Europe to the New World through voluntary migration and immigration. African Americans (and Afro-Caribbeans) did not join this westward progress voluntarily but were captured from Africa and forced into slavery. Thus African American culture both participates in and remains distinct from Western Civilization. (Voluntary immigration of Africans to the USA was virtually unknown until the late 20th century.)

Possible African American texts for inclusion in Utopias seminar:

*Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

Samuel R. Delany, Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia (1976)

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (1993): apocalyptic narrative of social collapse; refugees from Los Angeles, led by a young woman gifted with hyperempathic powers and prophecy, journey to land in Pacific Northwest, where they establish a hardscrabble commune on ecotopian principles.

*Toni Morrison, Paradise (1997)

*Colson Whitehead, The Intuitionist (1999): alternative history / future; afrofuturism

*Notable for "parallel world" or "world within a world" aspects; cf. grandmother baking crackers in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl


selections from African American slave narratives

from Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (London, 1789; vol. I)

from Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. 1845.

from Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)


Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech at Washington, 1963



Toni Morrison (b. 1931) & Paradise (1997)

1993 Nobel Prize for Literature—highest international literary award

First African American and American woman author to win

Morrison's significance to both African American literature and women's literature is profound.

Paradise may be read as representing African American literature or women's literature but cannot be reduced to either.

The title of Morrison's Paradise may imply a utopian fiction, but the novel's relation to utopian fiction is comparable to Atwood's Oryx and Crake:

Some potentially utopian conventions appear, or text is "informed" by utopian traditions or formulas.

Compared to classic utopian novels, Paradise like Oryx and Crake are freer to develop characters or diverge from ideological purposes of utopian fiction.


Possible utopian features of Paradise:

"The Convent" as feminine / feminist utopian counterpart to patriarchal dystopia / traditional community of Haven / Ruby (founded by Big Papa and Big Daddy)

"Convent" literally means a woman's monastery—-compare to monastery that may have modeled More's Utopia, but for women rather than men


Possible applications to utopian studies: African America may have a distinct utopian inheritance through Bible, especially identification of African America with chosen people of God suffering under Pharaoh's Egypt (i.e., slaveholding USA) who are delivered by God to the Promised Land (for African America, either the North or a reformed Southern USA).

In Paradise, after the Civil War and Emancipation, a community of freed slaves journeys from Haven to Ruby.

Compare Moses and chosen people on Exodus to Promised Land (= utopia or utopian destination)

(Dr. King made similar comparisons b/w himself and Moses, and other African American leaders are compared to Moses: Marcus Garvey, Harriet Tubman)

Travelers in Paradise bring community oven on journey, comparable to the Jews' Arc of the Covenant as a symbol of community cohesion, tradition, shared values.


NYTimes travel article

In Indian and Oklahoma territories