[Syllabus] NYU: Race, Ethnicity, and Popular Media (Fall 2012)

Updated Syllabus: FinalRevisedNYUSyllabus
"Frank Leon Roberts"

“Branded Head” (2003) Hank Willis Thomas


New York University
Thursdays, 6:20-9:00pm
Silver Center, Room 406

Professor Frank Roberts
Office Hours: By Appointment
E: frankroberts@nyu.edu

Download Syllabus Here: NYU Race and Popular Culture Syllabus

Official Course Twitter Profile: @NYURACE (https://twitter.com/NYURace)

Course Description: 

What does it mean to use “media” as a site of cultural critique? What does critical race theory look like or sound like when we encounter it on the radio, on a dance-floor, or on a movie screen? In this course we will pay close attention to the racial politics of what neo-Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno once famously called “the culture industries”: namely film, television, radio and popular music. More specifically, we will examine how contemporary cultural workers of color (musicians, filmmakers, artists, etc.) have utilized mass-mediated forms to resist, respond to, and reveal the conundrum of “race” in the 21st century. Our readings will include perspectives from a range of ethnic studies scholars such as Stuart Hall, Tricia Rose, Cornel West, Mark Anthony Neal and Daphne Brooks. We will also survey the more embodied or “performative” theoretical insights offered by figures such as Spike Lee, Lil Kim, R. Kelly, Tyler Perry, Jennifer Lopez, Amy Winehouse, Savion Glover and Beyonce Knowles, among others. In short, in this course we will think about media as more than simply a site for “representing” race, but rather also as a site for forming and constructing race as we know it (i.e. racial formation).

Reading for 9/20 (alongside The Price of the Ticket):

Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Fear of a Black President”

Readings for 9/6:

Cornel West, “Democracy Matters Are Frightening in Our Time”:

Cornel West, “The Deep Democratic Tradition”

Cornel West, “Nihilism in Black America” (you only need to read the first five pages of the chapter in “Nihilism in Black America.” Disregard the rest.):


A Preview of Some Of  Our Required Texts:

Fredrick Harris, The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics (Oxford University Press, 2012)

The historical significance of Barack Obama’s triumph in the presidential election of 2008 scarcely requires comment. Yet it contains an irony: he won a victory as an African American only by denying that he was the candidate of African Americans. Obama’s very success, writes Fredrick Harris, exacted a heavy cost on black politics. In The Price of the Ticket, Harris puts Obama’s career in the context of decades of black activism, showing how his election undermined the very movement that made it possible. The path to his presidency began just before passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, when black leaders began to discuss strategies to make the most of their new access to the ballot. Some argued that black voters should organize into a cohesive, independent bloc; others urged a more race-neutral approach, working together with other racial minorities as well as like-minded whites. This has been the fundamental divide within black politics ever since. At first, the gap did not seem serious. But the post-civil-rights era has accelerated a shift towards race-neutral politics. Obama made a point of distancing himself from older race-conscious black leaders, such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson–even though, as Harris shows, he owes much to Jackson’s earlier campaigns for the White House. Unquestionably Obama’s approach won support among whites, but Harris finds the results troublesome. The social problems targeted by an earlier generation of black politicians–racial disparities in income and education, stratospheric incarceration and unemployment rates, rampant HIV in black communities–all persist, yet Obama’s election, ironically, marginalized them. Meanwhile, the civil-rights movement’s militancy is fading from memory. Written by one of America’s leading scholars of race and politics, The Price of the Ticket will reshape our understanding of the rise of Barack Obama and the decline of a politics dedicated to challenging racial inequality head on.

Yuval Taylor, The Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip Hop (W.W. Norton, 2012)

An exploration and celebration of a controversial tradition that, contrary to popular opinion, is alive and active after more than 150 years. Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen investigate the complex history of black minstrelsy, adopted in the mid-nineteenth century by African American performers who played the grinning blackface fool to entertain black and white audiences. We now consider minstrelsy an embarrassing relic, but once blacks and whites alike saw it as a black art form—and embraced it as such. And, as the authors reveal, black minstrelsy remains deeply relevant to popular black entertainment, particularly in the work of contemporary artists like Dave Chappelle, Flavor Flav, Spike Lee, and Lil Wayne. Darkest America explores the origins, heyday, and present-day manifestations of this tradition, exploding the myth that it was a form of entertainment that whites foisted on blacks, and shining a sure-to-be controversial light on how these incendiary performances can be not only demeaning but also, paradoxically, liberating.

Tricia Rose, Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop—And Why It Matters (Basic Civitas, 2008)

Is Hip Hop dead? For the past dozen years, the most commercially successful hip-hop has become increasingly saturated with caricatures of black gangstas, thugs, pimps, and ’hos. The controversy surrounding hip-hop is worth attending to and examining with a critical eye because, as scholar and cultural critic Tricia Rose argues, hip-hop has become a primary means by which we talk about race in the United States.

In The Hip-Hop Wars, Rose explores the most crucial issues underlying the polarized claims on each side of the debate: Does hip-hop cause violence, or merely reflect a violent ghetto culture? Is hip-hop sexist, or are its detractors simply anti-sex? Does the portrayal of black culture in hip-hop undermine black advancement?

A potent exploration of a divisive and important subject, The Hip-Hop Wars concludes with a call for the regalvanization of the progressive and creative heart of hip-hop. What Rose calls for is not a sanitized vision of the form, but one that more accurately reflects a much richer space of culture, politics, anger, and yes, sex, than the current ubiquitous images in sound and video currently provide.

Judith Halberstam, Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal (Beacon Press, 2012).

Why are so many women single, so many men resisting marriage, and so many gays and lesbians having babies?

In Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal, J. Jack Halberstam answers these questions while attempting to make sense of the tectonic cultural shifts that have transformed gender and sexual politics in the last few decades. This colorful landscape is populated by symbols and phenomena as varied as pregnant men, late-life lesbians, SpongeBob SquarePants, and queer families. So how do we understand the dissonance between these real lived experiences and the heteronormative narratives that dominate popular media? We can embrace the chaos! With equal parts edge and wit, Halberstam reveals how these symbolic ruptures open a critical space to embrace new ways of conceptualizing sex, love, and marriage.

Using Lady Gaga as a symbol for a new era, Halberstam deftly unpacks what the pop superstar symbolizes, to whom and why. The result is a provocative manifesto of creative mayhem, a roadmap to sex and gender for the twenty-first century, that holds Lady Gaga as an exemplar of a new kind of feminism that privileges gender and sexual fluidity.

Part handbook, part guidebook, and part sex manual, Gaga Feminism is the first book to take seriously the collapse of heterosexuality and find signposts in the wreckage to a new and different way of doing sex and gender.

Shayne Lee, Erotic Revolutionaries: Black Women, Sexuality, and Popular Culture (Hamilton, 2010)

Why is there no “pro-sex” contingency in black feminist scholarship? Why do so few African-American scholars expound on issues celebrating female sexual pleasure? Perhaps the answers to these questions reside within a discursive matrix of sexual repression commonly referred to as the politics of respectability, and its rein on black sexual politics. In Erotic Revolutionaries: Black Women, Sexuality, and Popular Culture, sociologist Shayne Lee steers black sexual politics toward a more sex-positive trajectory. Introducing feminist analysis to a conceptual ménage à trois of scripting theory, media representation, and black sexual politics, Lee considers the ways in which the feminist quest for social and sexual equality can delve into popular culture to see the production of subversive scripts for female sexuality and erotic agency. Whereas most feminist scholarship underscores how sexual representations of black women in media are exploitative and problematic, Lee portrays black female celebrities like Janet Jackson, Beyoncé, Karrine Steffans, Zane, Tyra Banks, Juanita Bynum, Sheryl Underwood and many more as feminists of sorts who afford women access to cultural tools to renegotiate sexual identity and celebrate sexual agency and empowerment. Erotic Revolutionaries navigates the uncharted spaces where social constructionism, third-wave feminism, and black popular culture collide to locate a new site for sexuality studies that is theoretically innovative, politically subversive, and stylistically chic.