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Radical History Review 89 (2004) 230-242
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Race and Nation:
The United States in "Our America"
This course on the United States in the Atlantic world is an example of how someone trained to research and teach U.S. history might use additional "American" histories—in this case those of Haiti and Cuba—to transform a course on nineteenth-century issues of race and nationhood. Notwithstanding persistent calls to internationalize the study of the United States, the pressure to define one's scholarly territory along national lines remains strong. Most people trained as specialists in U.S. history do not have deep expertise in other areas. Graduate advisors, the job market, and academic publishing tend to discourage historians from undertaking comparative work at least until they have established themselves in the profession. Such hurdles can, of course, be overcome. But for many specialists in the United States who wish to challenge conventional narratives of U.S. isolation and exceptionalism in their teaching, the prospect of developing a course that incorporates comparative or international history can be daunting. This, at least, was my feeling on finishing graduate school. I had written a dissertation tightly focused on race and politics in one U.S. city in the Civil War era. I had done some graduate work in Latin American history and the history of transnationalism, and I had taught a course on relations between the United States and Central America. But by the time I finished the degree, I felt I had been "disciplined" into the U.S. history niche.
In spring 2002, I had the opportunity to design an upper-level undergraduate course for George Mason University's (GMU) history department, and, although I [End Page 230] wanted to teach nineteenth-century U.S. history in a hemispheric perspective, I was reluctant to undertake a fully comparative course in my first year of postgraduate teaching. I therefore planned "Emancipation and Nationhood: The United States in International Context" hoping it would allow me to teach the nineteenth-century United States in a broader geographic context without requiring an overwhelming amount of preparation. The course began with the Haitian revolution and ended with the so-called Spanish-American war. I kept the United States at the center of the course, highlighting black and Cherokee nationalism, whiteness and Manifest Destiny, the U.S. Civil War and emancipation, and the rise of Jim Crow. But I also spent significant time on comparative examples, focusing mainly on the Haitian revolution and Cuban slave emancipation and independence. The course was challenging to teach, and I would do some things differently next time around, but overall I believe it was a success. I assigned both primary and secondary sources, and a good-sized group of students was reliably excited to speak in class. Weekly writing assignments helped me stay abreast of the students' understanding of the reading and generated lively and informed class discussions. Among the outcomes, the most interesting were that students were particularly enthusiastic about the non-U.S. sections of the course, and that the class generated wide-ranging discussions of race and racism, past and present.
The course had four primary conceptual goals. First, I hoped to show the students that studying the nineteenth-century United States alongside other countries also experiencing colonialism, slavery, and emancipation could yield new insights, both about U.S. history and the histories of other countries. Second, I wanted the course to demonstrate that ideas about race and racism were critical in the formation of nations where slavery existed and that racism was not simply an "irrational" historical aberration. In the United States, racism became a national ideology, not characteristic only of the white South or of a few extremists. Third, I wanted to emphasize historical contingency, the idea that visions of nationhood were meaningfully contested, both in the United States and elsewhere. This would help students question whether the emergence of a segregated society after slavery was inevitable. Finally, I hoped to illuminate the agency, diversity, and sophistication of people of African descent in the era of...