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This course examines a variety of issues in the history of the United States, from the European invasion of the Americas to the era of Donald J. Trump. A central focus of the course is the 19th and 20th centuries and the interrelated, vexing problems of race and of democracy and freedom. The definitions that various groups gave or tried to give to these ideas and to practices of them in the 19th and 20th centuries continue to shape our world in the 21st, as unfolding political processes and events in the USA remind us daily.
The readings, drawn from primary and secondary works in history and the social sciences, as well as from the American literary canon, focus on groups as well as on representative men and women – some famous, but many who lived at some distance from what we typically consider the centre stage of history. By examining the lives of selected individuals and groups, this course asks you to explore the meaning of democracy, freedom, and race in the United States, and, in particular, to investigate the relationship of freedom and democracy to the question of race and the problem of racism. As the readings, lectures, and video presentations will suggest, the inextricably linked question of gender also will be explored carefully – even when our texts may seem oblivious to it.
Above all, perhaps, this course asks that you think about the past as a set of problems and questions, and not merely as a simple narrative of events, and that you extend yourselves beyond an engagement with various aspects of the history of the USA to consider how such history “works” in the present. Accordingly, we will be investigating how parts of the past seem to have been silenced, and how we might come to “unsilence” them. We will need to work on unsilencing ourselves, as well, and our lectures and discussion/writing seminars are intended to help in the effort.