African American Studies

Course Description and Requirements

Mr. Motter

Description: In its broadest aspect, the story of African Americans is also the story of America’s promise to its people: freedom. “If in the eyes of the world today the United States stands for man’s right to be free,” historian Benjamin Quarles wrote in 1964, “certainly no group in this country has sounded this viewpoint more consistently than the Negro.” The history of African Americans thus confronts students with America’s most fundamental and persistent obstacle to freedom, that of racism. This course provides students with an opportunity to think deeply about the meaning of freedom and how it has been shaped for all Americans through the history, literature, art, and music of African Americans.

Organization and Objectives: The course is divided into three chronologically arranged parts.  We begin with an examination of the Atlantic Slave and the early settlement of British North America. In this part of the course we explore the beginnings of slavery, the ambiguous status of people of African ancestry in the colonies, the evolution of slavery as a legal and social institution, and the origins of race as slavery’s guiding ideology. Part II of the course is devoted to the study of plantation slavery. We will examine the origins of the system and learn how African Americans lived under slavery. In this section, we will also examine the status of free African Americans in the North and the South, the abolition movement, and African American contributions in the Civil War. Civil Rights is the focus of Part III and covers the period 1863 to the present. We will briefly review Reconstruction and then examine the rise and fall of Jim Crow. We will conclude the course with brief look at contemporary issues related to themes studied in the course.

Literature is a vital component of the course from beginning to end. In Parts I and II, we will read excerpts from slave narratives by Equiano, Harriet Jacobs, and Frederick Douglass. We will read essays and speeches by David Walker, Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth. In Part III, we will read turn of the century pieces by Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Paul Dunbar, as well as folk tales and spirituals of the period. As we move into the twentieth century, we will take up the poetry, music, and art of the men and women of the Harlem Renaisssance.

A close reading of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man will be a major focus of the second quarter. Ellison’s novel provides a bridge between history and literature for our study of the twentieth century and raises important questions about the contradiction between the promise of American democracy and the demand that some men stay in their place.  Through Ellison’s great novel we will examine the musical, artistic, literary and historical contours of modern American society and culture.


Homework: 35% All homework must be submitted by 8:15 am the day of class. Tardy submissions suffer a late penalty of a letter grade. Assignments must be submitted within three class days of the due date or a zero is recorded in the grade book. If you are habitually late submitting homework, I will require a note from your parents before I accept it.

Major Assignments: 55% Major assignments include essays and creative projects. Historians write and, as young historians, so will you. Please observe the rules of good writing as described in The History Essay. Tardy submissions suffer a late penalty of one letter grade for every day late. Assignments must be submitted within three class days of the due date or a zero is recorded in the grade book. If you need more time to complete an assignment, it is your responsibility to notify me of your situation no later than 12 hours before the due date and arrange for an appropriate submission date.

Final Project: Students will complete a final project on a topic of their choosing. Details to follow. The Final Project will count as a double major assignment for the second quarter grade.

Professionalism: 10% The scholar’s enterprise requires both individual and collective responsibility, so you will earn credit for professionalism: participation, timeliness, organization, communication, collaboration, and reliability.

Plagiarism is not tolerated. If you are caught stealing words, I will refer the matter to Mr. Yamamoto.

Extra Help: If you have trouble with any aspect of this course, please see me immediately. We can meet before or after school, during your free periods, or during lunch. Just make an appointment so that can decide on a mutually convenient meeting time. Do not hesitate to consult with me. My job is to help you learn.