152AC | CCN: 24469

Race and Order in the New Republic

Instructor: Nadesan Permaul,

4 Units

Through the examination of various media, from texts to films, to audio media, we will explore the formation of our early American cultural character and identity, and how that culture has subsequently affected our contemporary society. We will start with the question of what is American culture, and whether there is a discernable cultural identity in our society. This course meets the public discourse requirement in the Department of Rhetoric.

Jane Smiley in a Harper’s article in 1996 wrote the following regarding the role race plays in American society. She was commenting on what she perceived were the shortcomings of Samuel Clemen’s [Mark Twain] Huckleberry Finn:

“…Americans always think racism is a feeling, and they reject it or they embrace it. To most Americans, it seems more honorable and nicer to reject it, so they do, but they almost invariably fail to understand that how they feel means very little to black Americans, who understand racism as a way of structuring American culture,…”

What does it mean to suggest that race could be viewed as a way to “structure” our culture, and is there evidence to support such a contention? In the attempt to make sense of this question, I will propose a connection between the sociological concept of “cultural trauma” and the formation of the nation’s cultural identity.

1. We will start with readings on culture and the theory of cultural trauma, to provide a context.

2. Then we will move to historical and cultural narrative beginning with James Fennimore Cooper's The Pioneers; America’s first popular and iconic fictional work.

By using this historical romance novel as an interpretation of American cultural identity, the class will view the development of American society and culture as a “formal problem.” That is, the novel poses a symbolic and thematic problem in which the three principal racial groups in early North America (i.e., the Native Americans, the European-Americans, and the African-Americans) are symbolically structured into the social and political order in colonial American and in the new nation.

All subsequent readings will be viewed in the context of that formal problem and Cooper’s solution. The symbolism of American narrative may reveal how our public discourse reflects our society and culture.

3. Ante-bellum readings will be matched with more contemporary cultural artifacts and symbolism in film clips and documentary media. This class is focused around the discussion of course materials so preparation for class and reading materials in advance are required; you may be called on to present reading interpretations to the rest of the class.

4. Readings include original texts in American literature and letters (e.g. My Bondage, My Freedom by Frederick Douglass, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Huckleberry Finn by Samuel Clemens, along with readings from D.H. Lawrence, William Carlos Willliams, the New York Review of Books, etc.). There will also be historical articles, theoretical material, and criticism collected in supplementary readings in a course reader that will analyze the eras from which the works emerged, issues that shaped the history of early America, and contemporary connections. Film clips (ranging from the “Big Bang Theory” to Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”, James Cameron’s “Avatar” and “Terminator II”, to Sixty Minutes and the PBS “The American Experience”) will supplement formal reading material in each class as examples of narrative.

5. Classes begin with film clips and may involve student presentation of reading materials before we break into a full discussion. We will be open to all perspectives, no matter how controversial or widely shared. But we will be respectful of one another, and speak in language not aimed at individuals or personalities, but at issues.

There will be a take-home midterm essay, an essay/project making use of course materials and themes, and a take-home essay final exam. Attendance, participation in discussions, and office hour visits are part of course grading. Early in the semester, there will be a mandatory Friday night pot-luck dinner and/or film gathering. I will provide you with dates in the syllabus.

Required Texts:

James Fennimore Cooper, The Pioneers;
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick;
Frederick Douglas, My Bondage, My Freedom;
Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn;
Course Reader from Copy Central on Bancroft Way that includes excerpts from Joel Martin’s Sacred Revolt, and other materials.