Black Experience in White America

Catalogue Description:

This course will trace the African-American experience from the time of slavery until the present. Students will read primary and secondary sources to understand the origins and conditions of slavery and the development of black consciousness, leadership ideologies, and protest movements that culminated in the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. Other topics will include the ideology of racism and the complex relationship between issues of class and race. Primary documents will include slave narratives, folklore, autobiographies, polemics, and literature. Offered: Spring Term.


    • Origins of slavery and racism

    • Impact of the Revolution

    • Emancipation

    • Reconstruction and the establishment of Jim Crow

    • Great Migration

    • Civil Rights Movement

    • Contemporary problems


Where does racism come from and how has it evolved over time? Did it cause slavery or vice versa? Can it ever be defeated? We will explore the role of contingency in the development of racism.

What was the nature of slavery and how did it shape African American culture and consciousness?

Who freed the slaves and how did it happen? Was it an inevitable result of the Civil War?

How did the Civil War, emancipation, Reconstruction, and the great northward migration of 1915-1970 change the nature of race relations and the lot of black people in America? Why do some historians refer to this period as the "Nadir"?

Where did the Civil Rights Movement come from? Is there a revolutionary consciousness among African Americans? How did black people respond to slavery and Jim Crow? To what extent did they accept their place and adjust, or resist and rebel? Which leaders have been the most effective?

What is the black community? How unified is it? How divided by class? Is there a black culture? A black world view? How have the experiences of African Americans shaped their consciousness and how have they in turn shaped America?

What are the most important issues involving race and African Americans in contemporary America? Which problems did the Civil Rights Movement solve? What problems still need to be address. We will discuss composition and the state of black America today and look at such issues as poverty, class divisions, affirmative action, and crime.

How central is race and the history of African Americans to the history of the United States? Should there be a separate African American history museum in Washington D.C.? Should Black History Month be eliminated? For a film that addresses this question, see:

GRADED ASSIGNMENTS: Students will be asked to produce three major products connected to three different themes or questions we are addressing this term. These may be a project of your own design, such as a paper that responds to one of the questions we are grappling with, a classroom assignment for a course (e.g. a DBQ, or a slide presentation that could form the basis of a class discussion), a review that assesses the resonance and accuracy of a movie about black history, a screenplay for an imagined encounter between two historical figures, a powerpoint presentation, or YouTube video.


1. Obama and Race. Obama's speech on race during the 2008 presidential campaign saved his candidacy and is considered one of his best orations. What important truths did Obama capture about the role of race in America? Where does the speech fall short? WATCH on YouTube, a sermon by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright; and READ or WATCH Barrack Obama's March, 2008 speech on race. Print a copy and bring it with you to class.

a. News Report:

b. Wright Sermon:

c. Obama Speech video:

d. Obama Speech text:

2.The origins of slavery. What is the relationship between slavery and racism? Which came first? READ Handout: "The Origins of North American Slavery and Racism," 82-109. What is different about the arguments of the two historians? How do the primary documents bolster either of those arguments?

3. Slavery and the Revolution: READ Roediger, pp. 3-5, 11-14 (to racial folklore), & Chapter 2. How is Roediger's explanation of the development of racism different from Morgan's? How did the revolutionary ideology of Republicanism change the institution of slavery and the way white Americans thought about race?

4. Slavery in Exeter: Can you explain the population trends for free blacks and slaves over the years? What was life like for free blacks in Exeter after 1790? We will visit the Exeter Historical Society or the Independence Museum.

5. Further reading in the history of white working class racism. READ Roediger, Chapter 3. Why do white workers increasingly embrace white supremacy? What is the relationship between class and race in America? Is racism imposed on the working class by elites or do all white Americans deserve equal blame?

6. Race and white people: READ Roediger, 93-97, and Chapter 7. How did the Irish become white? Why did they become racists?

7. Meeting with Matha Ackerman in Academy 119: Read photocopied pages from her book.

8. Slavery Overview: READ Foner, Forever Free, Chapter One, the Peculiar Institution.

9. Slavery from the slaves perspectives: READ "When I Was a Slave." The book has transcripts of 34 oral history interviews with slaves. Look at any ten or more of the memoirs with an eye toward answering the questions we asked about slavery in the last class. You may skip over parts of the narratives that don't help to answer the questions. Spend an hour and 15 minutes on the assignment. Come to class prepared to share specific passages and explain how they help to answer as many different questions as possible. How terrible or benign was slavery? To what extent were conditions mitigated by paternalism? Were slaves rebellious or did they accept their place ("internalized aggression")? How did slaves feel about their masters? What was the role of Christianity in the life of the slaves? Did it help them cope? Make them passive? Fuel a rebellious spirit? How did slavery shape black culture? The family? How reliable are these sources?

10. Slavery from the slaves' perspective: READ Handout: Slave narratives; song lyrics; folk tales. Read again with an eye to answering our questions about slavery.

11. First paper assignment due.

12. Emancipation: Who Freed the slaves? READ handouts on the Great Emancipator.

13. Emancipation and public opinion: READ Foner, "Visual Essay," 68-75. Use Google images or the library's database of 19th century periodicals to find more images to support or complicate Brown's argument. Email copies of links of images to me before class begins and we'll try to put together a chronological slide show during class.

14. Emancipation: Read Foner, Chapter 2, "Forever Free" Who or what deserves the most credit for emancipation of the slaves.

15. Reconstruction and Emancipation: READ: Foner, 181-213. In class we'll watch some scenes from the film, "Glory."

16. The Era of Jim Crow/Nadir Reconstruction READ: Strange Career of Jim Crow, 44-118.

17. Response to Jim Crow: Accommodation. READ Up From Slavery, chapters 1-3 & 5. Also, review the paragraph on Washington in the Strange Career of Jim Crow on page 82.

18. READ Up From Slavery: chapter 14; Souls of Black Folk: Chapter 3, "Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others."

19. W.E.B. Du Bois. READ: Souls, Forethought and Chapters 1, 6.

20. The Nadir in art and film: Triumph of Racism. READ Foner (Brown), "Jim Crow" 214-224; READ about the film, "Birth of a Nation" on then WATCH clips from "Birth of a Nation" on YouTube. 1. 2. 3. 4. What does the artist James Marshall mean by "ongoing recognition" and "active condemnation"? How does he want us to respond to his work? Do a Google image search on him and the other artists mentioned at the end of the reading. Why did northern audiences respond so favorably to the Birth of a Nation? What effect did the film have? How should African-Americans respond?

21. Nadir. READ: Richard Wright, "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow"; And William Jordan, Black Newspapers and America's War for Democracy: 10-14; 30-32. How should African-Americans cope in the age of Jim Crow? How should black leaders lead?

22. Assignment #2 Due

23.The great migration: Follow online exercise on the Art of the Great Migration. Must all African American art serve the cause of racial uplift? In the era of Jim Crow, must black art "confront Jim Crow" like the images in the Crisis did? Or at the very least avoid reinforcing the stereotypes that appeared in racist Jim Crow imagery?

24. Great Migration: music READ Albert Murray, Stomping the Blues, 3-90, 250 (bottom) to 254. what Claims does Murray make for the significance of Blues or Jazz music? What was the role of music in the lives of African Americans during the Nadir?

25. Great Migration: Residential segregation in the north and the Ossian Sweet Case.


b. Keven Boyle, Arc of Justice, 143-150.


26. From the Nadir toward the Civil Rights movement. READ Robin D.G. Kelley photocopied handout; and In Eyes on the Prize, READ pp. 13 to 14 ("Of Course. . ." to ". . . these shores."); pp. 26-37 (from "For those who ... "); pp. 41-43; and 45-47.

Did the political consciousness that led to the Civil Rights movement come from the leaders of the race or bubble up from below? What caused the movement?

27. Civil Rights Movement fault lines. READ: Williams, "Is Violence Necessary . . . ," and King, "Social Organization of Nonviolence," 110-114; King, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," 153-159; Three articles black power, 279-287; Painter, "Whites say I Must be on Easy Street," pp. 651-655. What are some of the key fault lines within the civil rights movement of the 1960s? Do they parallel the Du Bois/Washington divide?

28. Black America today: The Problem of Mass Incarceration. Why are so many black men in jail? Should we look to Booker T. Washington or W.E.B. Du Bois for a solution to the problem? LISTEN to 39-minute segment on "Fresh Air", NPR; READ: handouts: Heather Mac Donald, "American's Imprisonment Practices are Not Racist"; Amazon Customer review of The New Jim Crow by FireStarter (Note most reviews of the book were overwhelmingly favorable).

29. Black America today: READ Disintegration by Eugene Robinson: pp. 40-10, 19-24, 62-74.

30. The Mainstream and the Abandoned. Disintegration, Chapter 4: pp. 82-95, 98 ("In part . . ") to 99 (bottom ". . . ourselves."), 102-106; and begin Chapter 5: 117-122.

31. What to do? Disintegration, Chapter 5: 129-138; and Chapter 9: 208 ("The transcendent . . .") to 221; and Chapter 10: 226 "Some . . ." to 227, 230 ("Earlier . . .) to 237.

32. Final assignment. Write an essay that addresses this question: "Where to we go from here?" Your essay should consider the problems that black America faces today and propose the best way to go about solving them. It should consider the approaches of past leaders, like Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, William Monroe Trotter, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and how they might be adapted to fit the contemporary situation.