African-American History 08-09

Our class is using the term to understand the history of race and racism in the United States, recognizing that the history of the country is fundamentally connected to systems and experiences of racial difference. We are developing a collective project to respond to this history, one that we see very much as a history of the present.  Here is the outline of the course--since we're making the class together, this serves as the syllabus--that Jon composed, handed out the first day, and used to frame the class:

African-American History
Carolina Friends SchoolJon Lepofsky Winter Term, 2008-95th Period

Purpose of the course
The history of people of African descent in the United States is one based on difference—most notably, difference from people designated as “white.” As such, this history is intimately wrapped up in notions of identity, and in particular, race. Therefore, the history of peoples of African descent in the United States is not simply about the role that African-Americans have and continue to play in the history of the nation. Rather, it is also very much about the history of race (and racism) in the country’s history. This history of race has often been understood as a problem, and in particular, a problem for African-Americans to overcome because they are the ones marked by racial difference. From the struggles for emancipation before the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement of the middle 20th Century, the story of African-American history is often told as the heroic overcoming of cultural, economic, geographical, legal, political and social barriers constructed through notions of race. But, as the African-American intellectual Richard Wright famously noted: “There is no Negro problem in the United States, there is only a white problem.” Race and racism in the U.S., and its historical development, is a product of those who believe in the existence and superiority of whiteness. The history of race and racism, which sets the context for the history of African-Americans, is a history of racial conflict that is just as much about the protection of whiteness as it is about the “problem” of blackness.

By taking a look at African-American history in this way, we can see that it is a history that is still in the making, albeit one that is increasingly complicated, as we continue to understand events and issues in the U.S. through the lens of race. Indeed, the legacy of racial difference appears in the headlines continually, from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the Jena 6 to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and election. This history course will therefore start from the present in order to investigate the past by asking: what do we need to know about the history of race and racial difference to understand the United States today?

Methods of the course
To make the most out of present events in order to learn about the past, this course will be based upon our collective inquiry into current events of our own choosing. Drawing upon what knowledge and experience we have into reading events through a racial lens, we will choose a set of current events to focus our attention upon and then try to understand why these events require such particularly racial interpretations. In doing so, we will pay attention to the gaps in our own knowledge and attempt to fill those gaps by turning to historical events and processes which can help provide answers and explanations. For example, if we turn attention to the Jena 6, we will need to look at the history of lynching in the United States as it relates to race and racism in order to fully understand the symbolic power of white high school students in the Deep South taunting their African-American peers with a noose. That noose is only insulting (and threatening) when placed within a historical context of lynching and lynching’s role in maintaining a racial divide in the post-Civil War U.S. South.

To conduct this collective inquiry, we will first identify current events upon which to focus, then learn as much as we can about these events and their related issues. This will force us to ask questions of ourselves and to create an archive of questions needing answering. We will then use this collection of questions to conduct research on relevant historical topics, hopefully drawing upon the rich resources of the area (such as the UNC’s Southern Historical Collection or area residents’ own stories). We will then attempt to explain these events within their historical context through presentations of our research. It is my hope that the presentation of this work at the end of the term will be both collective and public.

Structure of the course
In following these methods, we will divide the course into several sections. The first few weeks of the term will be devoted to the identification and examination of the events we want to understand, with attention to how these events are spoken of and written about in racial terms. The next component of the course will focus on the specific histories we will need to understand the racialized meanings surrounding these events. The third and final section of the course will provide us the space to present our work in interesting and meaningful ways. We will develop the specific class session topics, materials and assignments together as we proceed into the term.

My expectations of you
Because this class will be driven by our, and primarily by your, interests, I expect you to be interested. That means that you will need to be an active and engaged participant in the collective process of inquiry that is at the core of this class. You need to think in critical and engaged ways and approach our work with honesty and a desire to learn more. You will also need to complete what assignments we do generate as well as contribute to the culminating presentations. Hopefully, because you will take an active role in constructing this course, you will do so with ambition yet practicality and set the terms for your own success. You will also need to be patient and generous in working with me and your peers and look for ways to reconcile differences, share responsibilities, and communicate openly. Your evaluation—which will also be developed together—will address your capacity to realize these expectations. I look forward to learning what expectations you have for yourself as well as what expectations you have for me.


Questions about this website or the class project can be sent to