HIST 5410W: Race in America
Instructor: Prof. Andrew Johnston
Eight of the first ten U.S. presidents owned slaves. The most important Chief Justices of the early Supreme Court, John Marshall, Joseph Story, and Roger Taney also owned slaves. In August 2019 the New York Times Magazine launched an ambitious project to reimagine the origins of the United States in the context of the 1619 arrival of the first African slaves to Virginia. Instead of the usual markers that celebrated colonial settlement and the American Revolution, The 1619 Project proposed that while slavery has sometimes been “referred to as the country’s original sin, it is more than that: It is the country’s very origin.” Out of slavery, the project contends, grew everything distinctive about America: its wealth, its inequities, its systems of justice and policing, its social sciences, its territorial expansion, its penchant for violence, its culture, and, of course, its inability to overcome its racial fears and hatreds to this day. The 1619 Project has come under criticism from a number of (sympathetic) historians for simplifying complex issues (notably the American Revolution), while others fear that its basic point will be lost to angry fact-checkers rather than provide the long-overdue historical reckoning it seeks. The idea of race in America is furiously contested because it speaks directly to the purported virtues of the nation’s identity.
The Trump presidency has come to symbolize many things, but coming on the heels of the Obama administration’s once-great hope of a “post-racial” America, it is clearer more than ever that the United States has not really been able to come to terms with role played by race in the formation of its institutions. It is not alone in this, of course, but “history” has always played an especially important role in American nation-building, and these arguments about whether, for example, the Revolution was about preserving slavery (as The 1619 Project claims) is about conflicting interpretations of the “meaning” of America itself.
This course aims to explore the complexities of these debates through the prism of America’s struggle with race. It will start with the role played by the dispossession of land from indigenous peoples by English settlers, as well as the near-simultaneous introduction of slavery in the origins of American identity; the legacies of slavery for both the ideology of racism and the economic modernization of the U.S.; 19th century reactions to immigration; abolition and segregation after the Civil War; the role of race in U.S. imperialism; the development of cultural pluralist thought during the First World War; the Harlem Renaissance (one celebrated cultural face of Black emancipation); Asian exclusion; the diverse waves of civil rights activism; urban development and segregation; crime, policing and the Prison-Industrial Complex; Mexican immigration and Latina/o identity; and the prospects for a post-racial America from Obama to Trump.
Assignments and evaluation: The course will mostly revolve around (online) discussions, but there will be a variety of short writing assignments, and some reading reports on key primary texts that we’ll read as well.