Syllabus: "New Brown America: Race and Identity in the 21st Century"

Spring 2019
Instructor: Amardeep Singh, English Department

Short Description

What does it mean to be brown in America in 2019? How have recent historical events -- from 9/11 to the election of Donald Trump -- impacted the status of immigrant communities? This course will explore a range of contemporary texts from popular culture, including novels, memoirs, films, stand-up comedy albums, poetry (both on the page and performed), and musical recordings, all of which explore the changing nature of identity. Many of our primary texts will explore points of intersection between different ethnic and racial groups, including black/Latino/Asian intersections, multiracial identities, and the broad, trans-racial appropriation of hip hop culture. We will also read from critical race theorists who will help students develop a conceptual vocabulary to engage these issues. In terms of performance, starting points will be Hasan Minhaj, Trevor Noah, Sharmila Sen, Eddie Huang, Rupi Kaur, and Mohsin Hamid. Students will be encouraged to bring their own interests and suggested materials to the course.

January 22       First Day of Class: Welcome.

What does Hasan Minhaj mean when he uses the phrase, “New Brown America”? How might his concept – which is poetic and moral – align with demographic trends, showing how a growing number of immigrants might be changing American society? Is the U.S. becoming more ‘brown’, or is it more accurate to say that ‘brown’ immigrants will eventually become ‘white’ – following the path of earlier immigrant communities?
                        In class: Hasan Minhaj, Homecoming King: clips

                        U.S. Census Document, “Race & Ethnicity” (Definitions)

January 24       “New Brown America”: Defining Terms
                        What do we mean when we describe some groups as ‘races’ and others as
‘ethnicities’? What exactly do sociologists mean by ‘ethnicity’? Second, what
exactly are the immigration trends that have conservative Americans so
disturbed? Is the U.S. becoming more ‘brown’ or is it more accurate to say that
new immigrants are becoming ‘white’?

Omi and Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: Preface and Introduction (2014 edition) (PDF CourseSite)
Pew Research: “Facts on U.S. Immigrants, 2016”

                        Thomas Edsall, “Who’s Afraid of a White Minority?”

January 29       Blackness/Whiteness

Where do the concepts of Whiteness and Blackness come from in American culture? How did waves of European immigrants ‘become’ white? How are white and black identities defined dialectically, historically? What might it mean to say that “whiteness is a lie” (as Baldwin and Coates both claim)? If whiteness is a lie, what does blackness mean?

Read: Claudia Rankine, Citizen (poetry)

Read: James Baldwin, “On Being ‘White’ and Other Lies” (1984) (PDF

Woody Deane, “Rethinking Whiteness Studies” (2014) (PDF CourseSite)             

January 31       Blackness/Whiteness Continued

                        Read Claudia Rankine, Citizen (poetry)

Read: Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Donald Trump is the First White President” (October 2017)

Poem: Cecil Brown, “Integrating the Strawberry Swimming Pool in 1998” (a poem)

February 5       Brown (as in Latino@ [Latinx])

Q: What might the concept of brownness mean for the Latinx community? When and how did this descriptor become popular and accepted? Is it embraced? When and why do some Latinx people identify as “white”? As “black”? How do we understand the relationships between the terms Latino/a, Latinx, Chicano/a/x, and Hispanic?

                        Pew Research: “Hispanic Identity Fades Across Generations”

                        Richard Rodriguez, Brown: The Last Discovery of America (chapters 1 and 2)
                        MTV Decoded: “Are Hispanics White?”

February 7       Poetry in Performance: Slam Poetry; Nuyorican Poets Cafe

                        Q: How do Latinx poets and writers perform their identities in the spoken word /
slam poetry idiom? How do we understand this style of poetic performance in relationship to Hip-Hop?

Susan Somers-Willett, “The Cultural Performance of Slam Poetry: Race, Identity, and the Performance of Popular Verse in America.” Introduction and Chapter 3, “I Sing the Body Authentic: Slam Poetry and the Cultural Politics of Performing Identity” (2009)
Elizabeth Acevedo, “Afro-Latina” (performed poem)

Additional examples of performed poetry -- student exercise (find the best instances of Latinx slam poetry you can for sharing with peers)

February 12     South Asian American ‘Brownness’

                        Q: How do South Asian American immigrants understand themselves in the
American race/ethnicity configuration?

Read: Sangay Mishra, Desis Divided: The Politics of South Asian Americans. Introduction: “Situating Desis in U.S. Ethnoracial Politics”

Read: Sharmila Sen, Not Quite Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America. Chapters: “Preface: The Mask That Grins…”; Chapter 3: “The Autobiography of an Ex-Indian Woman”; Chapter 4: “Heart of Not Whiteness”

February 14     Global Brownness: Migrants, Exiles, Refugees

                        Q: How do we compare the experience of various ‘brown’ communities in the
U.S. with migrant communities globally? Is there a global brown? Is there a difference in how this dynamic plays out in other societies? Is it possible ‘brown’ is only a relational idea?

                        Read: Kamal Al-Solaylee, Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today 
                        Means Chapters: “Introduction: Brown. Like Me?”; Chapter 1: “A Colour, A Vanished
Race, a Metaphor”
                        Read: Mohsin Hamid, Exit West (70 pages or so)
February 19     Global Brownness, Contd.

Read: Kamal Al-Solaylee, Brown…
                        Chapters: Chapter 2: “Colourism: Fair is Fair?”; Chapter 4: “The Philippines: At
the World’s Service”; Chapter 5: “Hong Kong: Workers, Women, Mothers”;
Chapter 10: “The United States: Undocumented”

                        Read: Mohsin Hamid, Exit West

February 21     Finish Exit West

February 26     “Ethnic” Hip-Hop

                        Q: Why do many brown second-generation youth turn to hip-hop as a means of
finding and expressing cultural identity? How do they negotiate the act of cultural appropriation (i.e., of an African-American cultural idiom and vocal intonation) even as they attempt to perform a version of ‘authenticity’?

Read: Nitasha Sharma, “Hip-Hop Desis” (Select Chapters) (PDF)
Read: Evan Young, “Keepin’ It Real: Hip-Hop and Cultural Appropriation” (2016)

                        Listen: Das Racist, “Ek Shaneesh,” “Rainbows in the Dark”
                        Listen: Heems, “Flag Shopping,”
                        Listen: Swet Shop Boys, “T5,” “Zayn Malik,” “No Fly List”          

February 28     Brown: Arabs and Persians

                        Q: Are Arab Americans and Iranian Americans ‘brown’? Many identified as ‘white’
for years on census forms. Has 9/11 changed their sense of ethno-racial identity?

                        [Reading on history of Arab Americans and Persian Americans identifying as
White in earlier census data. The change to brownness -- often along religious
lines -- post 9/11. The Racialization of religion in the American landscape.

Read: Suheir Hammad, Born Palestinian, Born Black (1996/2010)

                        Watch: Suheir Hammad clips on YouTube (Def Comedy Jam)

                        Watch: Zahra Noorbaksh (comedy), “Heaven Points”

March 5           Brown Poetics: South Asian American Poetry

Q: How are brown poets negotiating race and ethnicity in mainstream American poetry?

                        Read: Amit Majmudar, Dothead (book of poetry)

                        Minal Hajratwala, “Miss Indo-American Dreams” (poem)

March 7           A Brown Instagram Poet: Rupi Kaur, Milk and Honey (2014)

                        Read: Selections from Rupi Kaur

            “The Life of an Instagram Poet” (2017)

                        “Why Rupi Kaur and Her Peers are the Most Popular Poets in the World” (2017)

March 11-15: Spring Break

March 19         “Yellow” vs. “Brown”

                        Q: To what extent do the dynamics we see around brownness also apply to east
Asian American immigrants? Huang’s book suggests the engagement with hip-
hop, the second-guessing with respect to assimilation, the growing sense of
self-consciousness -- are all happening in “Asian” culture as well. Is “yellow” a
synonym for “brown”? On the other hand, writers like Min Zhou might suggest
that many east Asian Americans are ‘becoming white’.

                        Read: Eddie Huang, Fresh off the Boat
                        Read: Min Zhou: “Are Asian Americans Becoming ‘White’?” (2004) (PDF
                        Listen: Awkwafina, “Yellow Ranger,” “Testify”

March 21         Read: Continue reading Huang
                        Read: Frank Wu, Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White

Read: Eugene Volokh, “How the Asians Became White”

March 26         Read: Continue reading Huang and Wu

March 28         Defining an Identity: Brown Stand-Up Comedy

                        Q: How do brown stand-up comics use humor to work through their own
ethno-racial anxieties? How do they use the form to assert a distinctive voice in
the American mainstream? How do they negotiate the complex landscape of
‘Ethnic’ humor in the present moment? Can you actually be funny and not be hurting someone’s feelings?

Listen/Watch: Hari Kondabolu Comedy Specials, “Waiting for 1942” (audio), “Warn Your Relatives” (Netflix)

Read: Joanne R. Gilbert, “Performing Marginality: Comedy, Identity, and Cultural Critique” (1997) (PDF)

April 2             Brown Stand-Up Comedy Contd.

                        Watch: Aparna Nancherla, “The Standups (Season 2 -- half-hour episode on

                       Listen: Aparna Nancherla, “Just Putting It Out There” (comedy album; Spotify)

April 4             Brown Stand-Up Comedy Contd.

Watch: Hari Kondabolu documentary, “The Trouble With Apu” (2017)                 
                        Watch: Early Hari Kondabolu film, “Manoj” (YouTube)

                        Read: Ian Brodie, “Stand-up Comedy as a Genre of Intimacy”

April 9             Brown Stand-Up Comedy Contd. (Precedents / the earlier generation)

Watch: Russell Peters, “Outsourced” (2006)
Listen: Margaret Cho, “Notorious C.H.O.” (2002)

April 11           Brown Stand-Up Comedy, Contd.

Listen, Aziz Ansari, “Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening”
                        Watch: Aziz Ansari, “Master of None” “Parents” Episode

April 16           Brown TV

Mindy Kaling, Mindy Project (select episodes)
Sarayu Blue, I Feel Bad (pilot episode)

Jane the Virgin (TV: select episodes)

April 18           Mixed/Biracial

                        Q: To what extent are the experiences biracial or multiracial linked to the
experiences we’ve seen discussed with respect to the immigrant brown
experience? How might we compare the racial formation in South Africa to that in the U.S.?

                        Read: Trevor Noah, Born a Crime (select chapters)

April 23           Mixed/Biracial Contd.

Watch: Trevor Noah, “You Laugh But It’s True” (Netflix special)
Read: Trevor Noah, Born a Crime (contd.)