Black is Beautiful

When 1960s civil rights activists chanted “black is beautiful,” they were placing the beauty of black people and black culture at the center of their pursuit of justice. Why would they do such a thing? In this course we will try to answer this question by wondering aloud about the social force of artistic beauty. Many classic theorists framed aesthetic experience as happily, affirmatively separate from petty social concerns, and that might be your wise intuition too. Yet many a dictator has banished dissident writers. Moreover, the fact that a disproportionate majority of beauty queens, literary prize winners, and esteemed artists in the US are of European descent suggests that our aesthetic values are very much informed by our social ones. By comparing the diverse perspectives of theorists like Aristotle, African Americans artist and intellectuals, and several contemporary scholars, and by attending several literary and cultural events at AU or in DC, we will explore this relationship between aesthetic values and social values so that we can understand, for example, the social significance of Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer prize or the power of Beyonce’s sashay. We will do so because, as those 1960s activists recognized, aesthetic judgment not only makes and breaks careers, it can affect how entire communities are treated, from homelessness to gentrification. Taking up a problem urgent even in Aristotle’s time, we will try to capture with precision how beautiful things elicit emotions, what kinds of emotions are produced, and how those experiences move people, maybe even to just social action.

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