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A Home Elsewhere

A Home Elsewhere

Reading African American Classics in the Age of Obama

Robert B. Stepto

ISBN 9780674050969

Publication date: 05/15/2010

In this series of interlocking essays, which had their start as lectures inspired by the presidency of Barack Obama, Robert Burns Stepto sets canonical works of African American literature in conversation with Obama’s Dreams from My Father. The elegant readings that result shed surprising light on unexamined angles of works ranging from Frederick Douglass’s Narrative to W. E. B. Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk to Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.

Stepto draws our attention to the concerns that recur in the books he takes up: how protagonists raise themselves, often without one or both parents; how black boys invent black manhood, often with no models before them; how protagonists seek and find a home elsewhere; and how they create personalities that can deal with the pain of abandonment. These are age-old themes in African American literature that, Stepto shows, gain a special poignancy and importance because our president has lived through these situations and circumstances and has written about them in a way that refreshes our understanding of the whole of African American literature.

Stepto amplifies these themes in four additional essays, which investigate Douglass’s correspondence with Harriet Beecher Stowe; Willard Savoy’s novel Alien Land and its interracial protagonist; the writer’s understanding of the reader in African American literature; and Stepto’s account of his own schoolhouse lessons, with their echoes of Douglass’ and Obama’s experiences.


  • No single work was more important in the revolution in close reading that electrified African American literary studies in the 1980s than was Robert Burns Stepto's From Behind the Veil, a work as deeply insightful as it was engagingly written. Stepto reminded us, after Keats, that one dives into the lake not merely or necessarily to swim to the other side, but to enjoy the dive. Let us hope, at the end of another era of reductive thematic (race, class, gender) criticism, that this marvelous book can once again play that salutary role in redirecting readers to the sheer splendors of close reading, reminding us of the pleasures of luxuriating in the language of African American texts.

    —Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard University


  • Robert B. Stepto is Professor of English, African American Studies, and American Studies at Yale University. He is the author of From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative.

Book Details

  • 192 pages
  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press