“Literature of White Estrangement” Syllabus

Matthew Teutsch
5 min readOct 14, 2022
Charles Chesnutt

Over the course of the last few years, my work has continually focused on the ways that African American authors confront and engage with whiteness through the use of white characters in predominantly white texts. This started when I began to read Frank Yerby’s work, notably his early “costume novels” like The Foxes of Harrow or The Vixens. As my research expanded to comics, specifically looking at Christopher Priest’s Black Panther run, I began to notice, even in a series filled with Black characters, how Priest used a white narrator as the lens through which the reader encountered T’Challa. I see Priest working with a much longer tradition in African American literature using white characters to engage with whiteness and calling upon white readers to engage with their own whiteness. As such, I’ve been thinking about a syllabus based around Veronica Watson’s term “literature of white estrangement.” The below syllabus is in no way complete, but it is some initial thoughts on how I would organize this course.


African American authors, since the 1800s, have written texts that center primarily around white characters. Robert Fikes, Jr. terms these works “white life novels” and they arose, according to Fikes, amidst “[t]he pressure to conform to majority group tastes and expectations along with the personal desire of the authors to experience complete freedom of expression.” Authors such as Amelia E. Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, William Attaway, Wallace Thurman, and others wrote “white life novels” between the late 1800s to the mid-1900s. These novels continued through the social protest era from the mid-1940s onward with authors such as Zora Neal Hurston, Ann Petry, and Frank Yerby.

In the Souls of White Folks: African American Writers Theorize Whiteness, Veronica Watson theorizes “the literature of white estrangement” as works and materials “that critically [engage] Whiteness as a social construction.” White estrangement literature confronts “the myths and mythologies of Whiteness,” causing readers to come face to face with “the regressive, destructive, and often uncivilized ‘nature’ of Whiteness.” Watson argues that Hurston, Yerby, Charles Chesnutt, and other African American authors engage with the literature of white estrangement because they expose “Whiteness to itself by providing a…

Matthew Teutsch

Here, you will find reflections on African American, American, and Southern Literature, American popular culture and politics, and pedagogy.