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 the 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. One of Trump’s final acts, in November 2020, was to create by Executive Order the 1776 Commission to promote “patriotic education” that deliberately targeted the 1619 Project and “critical race theory” in general. The idea of race in America is so furiously contested precisely because it speaks directly to the purported virtues of the nation’s identity.
The Trump presidency came to symbolized 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 turn of the century U.S. imperialism; the development of cultural pluralist thought during the First World War; the Harlem Renaissance (one 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 Latinx identity; and the prospects for a post-racial America from Obama to Trump.
The course focuses mostly on anti-Black racism and its history. The idea of race has its origins in anti-Jewish European ideas, which morphed and manifested themselves in anti-Indigenous forms during the first age of European empire building. These original versions of race hatred obviously never went away but in the American case they were to some degree displaced by the role of slavery, which demanded an unusual degree of attention to skin colour as the principal marker of difference and, eventually, humanity itself.
The challenge in a graduate course like this, which is often given over to arcane (but important) historiographical debates, is to balance narrative with interpretation. Most of you will be coming with a healthy but possibly limited reading of U.S. history generally. Accordingly, the first few weeks will focus on a broad history of race in America (notably through Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning) before reading a number of recent works that address specific issues, themes, or periods. This means that by the end there will be some overlap with earlier material, while some other faces of the field will be under-represented; but it also means you’ll be in a better position to locate the recent material in a richer historiographic context. Assignments will involve a choice between writing a research paper or a series of shorter, interpretive papers, but the heart of the seminar will be our weekly dialogue in which interpretations of U.S. history will be debated and contested.