From Plantation to White House: Race, Nation, and the African American Experience

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From Plantation to White House:

Race, Nation, and the African American Experience

Professor Donna Murch

Professor Deborah Gray White

Course Description and Objectives

How did a black man become President of the United States? How did a people who were, such a short time ago, on the margins of citizenship move to the center of political power in a land where their color and ascribed status marked them as outsiders. And what does Barack Obama’s election say about race and race relations in this country? These are just some of the questions that this signature course will address. But there are many more. Obama’s interracial and international heritage prompts us to explore “who is black in America?” Can someone choose to be black or is blackness thrust upon one. “What does it mean to be brown in America today?” Can a person choose their race? To answer these question students will explore America’s early legal and social history. They will explore the history of intermarriage for clues that reveal how American and African American identity is, and has been, forged. It will explore the demographic changes brought about by immigration to determine what the African American experience teaches us about minorities in America. It is actually Michelle Obama’s heritage that takes us from American slave plantations to the White House. Her ascendancy to the position of First Lady provokes a series of interrogations about the intersection of a history of slavery, race, women and gender in America. There is also an institutional history that must be examined. What institutions, developed along what models, sustained black people and their allies in their quest for inclusion? Of course, there is always the counterfactual “what if.” What if African Americans had become subversives? Why didn’t they? The issue of resistance is one that emerges with enslavement and continues to the present. And what of racism? When and how did it begin here in America; how was it sustained; what groups have been its victim and has it disappeared? These are the issues that this course will address.

Requirements : Regular attendance; a short essay, midterm, and final.


Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York: Vintage, 2006)

Edward Countryman, ed., How Did American Slavery Begin (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 1999)

Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer, eds, Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950’s through the 1980’s (New York: Bantam Books, 1991)

Subject and Assignment Schedule

January 18 Introduction

Introduction to the class and a look at how the election of Barack Obama inspired this African American history course. Includes introduction of post-doctoral fellows and teaching assistants

January 20 Slavery and Race

This opening lecture will explore the long-standing debate in American history about whether slavery caused racism or racism caused slavery. In order to better understand contemporary debates about the importance of race, we will go back into the formative period in America in the late seventeenth century during which race based chattel slavery emerged from an earlier system of indentured servitude.

Readings: A Leon Higginbotham Jr. in Countryman “How did the subject of slavery enter American law?;” Edmond S. Morgan in Countryman, “Did American freedom rest upon American slavery; ”First Impressions: Initial English Confrontation with Africans” and “Unthinking Decision: Enslavement of Africans in America to 1700.”

January 25 One Drop Rule

The One Drop Rule: Our current president, Barack Obama, is of mixed race ancestry. Beginning with colonial America we will explore how mixed raced people were classified in the United States. We will start with the contemporary period and go back into the past.

Readings: Jordan in Countryman, “American Chiaroscuro: The Status and Defintion of Mulattoes in the British Colonies; Paul Finkleman, “Crimes of Love, Misdemeanors of Passion” in Catherine Clinton and Michelle Gillespie, eds. The Devils Lane: Sex and Race in the Early South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Virginia Gould, “A Chaos of Iniquity and Discord” in Devils Lane

January 27: The American Revolution and the Rise of Herrenvolk Democracy

This lecture will trace African Americans’ push for emancipation during the Revolutionary War Era and their continued struggles for citizenship in the Age of Andrew Jackson.

Readings: Excerpts from Death or Liberty; New York State Legislature Debate; Jackson and Native Americans; A Pro-Slavery Argument; Douglass’ Fourth of July Speech; MA Freedom Petition; George Fitzhugh, “Sociology for the South, 1854, and Cannibals All! 1857” in Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South, a Brief History with Documents, and Samuel A Cartwright “ Report on the Diseases of and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race, 1851 in Proslavery Thought in the Old South.

February 1: The Plantation and Its Regime

We start with Hilton Head, talk about Michelle Obama’s family, and compare and contrast what a plantation means today and what it meant back then. Work and resistance will be a major theme.

Readings: “In First Lady’s Roots, a Complex Path From Slavery” New York Times (October 7, 2009); Margaret Washington, “Who Enslaved Whom? Gullah Roots, From “ A Peculiar People” Slave Religion and Community Culture among the Gullahs” Selected Slave Narratives.

February 3 African American Traditions of Resistance

This lecture will explore resistance to the institution of slavery from free and bondsmen and women. Drawing on a range of methods, from speech, literacy, running away and organized revolts, we will talk about this long tradition in early African American history.

Readings: David Walker’s Appeal; “In Secret Places: Acquiring Freedom in Slave Communitiesin Heather Williams, Self Taught African American Education in Slavery and Freedom; Selections from Convention Movement Speeches

February 8 Black Reconstruction

This lecture will deal with self-emancipation; the13th 14th 15th amendments; electoral politics and return to the post-emancipation implications of the one-drop rule. Emphasis will be on African American desire to become first–class citizens.

Readings: “A Coveted Possession: Literacy in the First Days of Freedom” and “The Men Are Actually Clamoring for Books, African Americans Soldiers and the Education Mission” in Heather Williams, Self Taught; Elsa Barkley Brown, "To Catch a Vision of Freedom: Reconstructing Southern Black Women's Political History, 1865-1880," in Ellen DuBois and Vicki Ruiz, eds., Unequal Sisters (New York: Routledge, 2000)

February 10 Birth of a Nation

Showcasing clips from “Birth of a Nation,” this lecture will explore the racial, gender, and class politics of Wilsonian America, and consider how southern ideas of segregation influenced American politics and culture in the era of Jim Crow.

Readings: Excerpts from Thomas Dixon’s The Klansmen; Excerpts from The Souls of Black Folk; possibly excerpts from Jackson Lears’ Rebirth of a Nation

February 15 Black Modernity

This lecture will document the forging of a proud New Negro Black Identity and related strategies to gain full citizenship. We will also explore parallelism which drove the creation of a number of new black institutions in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Other themes include the Great Migration, the black renaissance in art and performance, and the Garvey Movement.

Readings: Darlene Clark Hine, “Black Professionals and Race Consciousness: Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, 1890–1950” Journal of American History, (89: 4) March 2003; “Conservation of the Races” by W. E. B. DuBois

February 17: Bordentown

Film: Bordentown: A look at black modernity and separate black citizenship

February 22 Race and the New Deal

This lecture will explore how race segmented the New Deal, shaped the emerging system of social welfare, and created fault lines within the Democratic Party. This section will lay the framework for Long Civil Rights Movement spanning the 1930s through the 1970s.

Readings: Harvard Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks; excerpts from Remembering Jim Crow

February 24 The Arsenal of Democracy

World War II: An exploration of why many think that black America’s freedom struggle begins with the increased expectations aroused during the “Good War.” An examination of the uses of the “social media” of the day.

Readings: Robin Kelley: “The Riddle of the Zoot: Malcolm Little and Black Cultural Politics during WWII” in Race Rebels: Black Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class; Selected Letters from Soldiers at the Front. In The Negro Soldier.

March 1 Midterm Exam

March 3 Victory at Home

This lecture introduces the massive changes of the postwar era, inaugurated by the two of the largest population movements in history: suburbanization for white Americans and the Second Great migration by African Americans.

Readings: James Gregory, The Southern Diaspora excerpts; Eric Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight, excerpts

March 8 Cold War Civil Rights

America has always been concerned with its image abroad. Here we will explore how African Americans internationalized the civil rights movement and how anti-communism almost derailed the civil rights movements.

Readings: “Telling Stories About Race and Democracy “ in Mary Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000) and “The Last Hurrah of the Old Color Line” in Thomas Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line : American Race Relations in the Global Arena (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); Penny Von Eshen, Race Against Empire

March 10 Post-War America

Film: “Race: The History of An Illusion”

March 15-17: SPRING RECESS

March 22 Defying Dixie

The Civil Rights Movement laid the foundation for the election of President Barack Obama. Here we will explore the early or “classic” civil rights movement and view clips from the period.

Readings: Excerpts from Voices of Freedom

March 24 The Ballot or the Bullet

The push for Voting Rights and the turn toward nationalism. This section will explore the alternate tradition of black politics that looked not to appeals for citizenship and incorporation but to creating “a nation within a nation.”

Readings: Excerpts from Voices of Freedom; Malcolm X, “The Ballot or the Bullet”

March 29 The Fire this Time

This lecture continues themes from previous week and explores the rise of Black Radicalism and Black Power in the era of the urban rebellions.

Readings: : Excerpts from Voices of Freedom

March 31 Black Family, Nationalism, and the Problem of Patriarchy

Much has been made of the wholesome family image projected by the Obama’s. The sixties image of the black family and black men and women was quite different. The black family was a subject of controversy and the image projected by black nationalist men was controversial. This class will explore these matters. Images of the Obama’s will highlight this class.

Readings: Excerpts from The Negro Family: A Case for National Action (The Moynihan Report); Excerpts from Michelle Wallace, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (New York: Verson Press, 1999 [1978] Tracye A. Mathews, No One Ever Asks Wahat a Man’s Role in the Revolution Is”: Gender Politics and Leadership in the Black Panther Party, 1966-1971” in Bettye Collier-Thomas and V. P. Franklin, Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2001)

April 5 Conservative Backlash

As it is today, the conservative backlash in the 60’s and 70’s was swift and effective. This class will look at the beginnings of the modern conservative movement in America.

Readings: “The Rightness of Whiteness,” “Jewish Americans Divide Over Justice,” “Conservative Shift from ‘Massive Resistance’ to Color Blindness” in Nancy MacLean, Freedom Is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006); Ronald Reagan’s States Rights Speech in Philadelphia Pennsylvania.

April 7 Black Metropolis and Electoral Politics

Obama started his career in public service in Chicago as a community organizer. This class will look at the urban landscapes of the last quarter of the 20th century and explore the issues that an increasing number of black mayors and elected officials faced.

Readings: Manning Marable, Race, Reform and Rebellion; excerpts from The Audacity of Hope

April 12 Conservatism at High Tide The Reagan Revolution

This lecture will explore the racial, economic, and foreign policy of the Reagan Revolution and its vision of revitalized American patriotism in response to the perceived national defeat and humiliation historians have dubbed the “Vietnam Syndrome.”

April 14 The Third Way

By the last decade of the twentieth century liberals were on the defensive and liberalism was on the decline. Bill Clinton moved the Democratic Party to center and laid the foundation for the progressive politics practiced by Obama.

Readings: “Clinton As the First Black President” Toni Morrison, New Yorker, 1998; Virginia Shapiro and David T. Canon, “Race, Gender and the Clinton Presidency,” in Colin Campbell and Bert A Rockman, eds. The Clinton Legacy (New York: Chatham House Publishers, 2000)

April 21 The Bush Presidency

The failures of the George W. Bush presidency paved the way for the Obama victory. This class will look at Bush policies including the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Katrina debacle and the economic collapse.

Readings: New Yorker articles; essays on Hurricane Katrina

April 26 Film: Obama’s Campaign

Readings: The Audacity of Hope; ; Obama’s speech on Race; assorted readings on diversity of black opinion about Obama; Toni Morrison article endorsing Hilary Clinton; Gloria Steinem’s article on Obama.

April 28

Summary and Final Observations

Readings: Obama’s speech on Race; Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow

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