AF AM 215: Syllabus

Intro to Black Social and Political Life | Department of African American Studies

INSTRUCTOR: Professor Debra Thompson


This course is an introduction to the political and social experiences of African Americans in the United States and beyond. Using insights from the various fields of the social sciences, including political science, sociology, economics, legal studies, and history, we will explore the dynamics of the operation and influence of power within, on, and over black communities. During this quarter we will think about how to usefully and systematically analyze the ways that African Americans define their identities, participate in politics and society, pursue their interests, and interact with the state and other social groups. Our goal is to be empirically grounded, theoretically informed, critical, rigorous, and fair in our analyses.


  • Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015) Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau.
  • Ian Haney Lopez (2014) Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Lester Spence (2015) Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics. Brooklyn: Punctum Books.
  • Michael Eric Dyson (2016) The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Other readings posted on our course website.


  • Module response papers (3)
  • Class contributions
  • Take-home exam (optional)


Students will write three response papers throughout the quarter based on the material from the readings, the lecture, and the class discussion each week. The response paper should address the response paper question [RPQ] for the week identified in the syllabus and like all academic essays should be analytical (i.e. not simply a reiteration of facts) and should have a clear argument and coherent structure. Additional research is required only insofar as it enables you to adequately address the question. Your paper must reference each of the assigned readings and engage with the points raised in the class discussion. This does not mean you must reference the entire class discussion and who-said-what; rather, you should think critically about the questions and concepts discussed in the seminar and incorporate them into your paper accordingly.


Week One: Concepts/Theories

  • March 29 no readings
  • March 30 Melissa Weiner (2012) “Global Critical Race Theory,” Sociology Compass 6(4): 332–350.

RPQ: Review the 2010 Census Brief, “The Black Population: 2010”. How do these demographic facts about the black population in the United States relate to the conceptualization of race as power?

Week Two: The Boundaries of Blackness

  • April 4 &6 Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015) Between the World and Me, all

RPQ: Which of the black political ideologies discussed in class does Coates most closely align with?

Week Three: Intersections of Identity: Gender, Families, Sexuality

  • April 11 Patricia Hill-Collins (2009) Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment, chapters 1 & 2, pp. 3–48.
  • April 13 Cathy Cohen (1997) “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” GLQ: Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 3: 437–465.
    Devon W. Carbado (2013) “Colorblind Intersectionality,” Signs: Journal ofWomen in Culture and Society 38(4): 811–845.

RPQ: What does intersectionality bring to the study of black politics?


Week Four: The Politics of Race and Sports

RPQ: Pick a recent(ish) event/controversy in sports (e.g., Was Cam Newton “sulky” after losing the SuperBowl? Did Maria Sharapova benefit from white privilege when she admitted to using a banned substance?) and write an analysis that engages the politics of race, blackness, and sports.

Week Five: Elites and Elections

  • April 25 & 27 Ian Haney Lopez (2014) Dog Whistle Politics, Introduction and chapters 3–8.

RPQ: Does Lopez’s theory of “dog whistle politics” help explain anything about the way the Democratic and Republican primaries have progressed thus far?

Week Six: Wealth, Work, and Worth

  • May 2 & 4 Lester Spence (2015) Knocking the Hustle, all.

RPQ: Read the black pathology debate between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait (Coates, “The Secret Lives of Inner City Black Males,” The Atlantic, March 18, 2014; Chait, “Barack Obama, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Poverty and Culture,” New York Magazine, March 19, 2014; Coates, “Black Pathology and the Closing of the Progressive Mind,” The Atlantic, March 21, 2014; Chait, “Barack Obama vs. the Culture of Poverty,” New York Magazine, March 28, 2014). Summarize, evaluate, and identify gaps in the debate.


Week Seven: Black Lives Matter

RPQ: Black Lives Matter has been called the “new civil rights movement” and the “civil rights movement of the 21st century. What are the benefits and dangers of comparing Black Lives Matter to the Civil Rights Movement?

Week Eight: The Black Presidency

  • May 16 & 18 Michael Eric Dyson (2016) The Black Presidency, all.

RPQ: Has Obama’s presidency been good or bad for black folk?

Week Nine: The Politics of Hair and Skin

  • May 23 Margaret Hunter (2007) “The Persistent Problem of Colorism: Skin Tone, Status and Inequality,” Sociology Compass 1(1): 237–254.
    Evelyn Nakano Glenn (2008) “Yearning for Lightness: Transnational Circuits in the Marketing and Consumption of Skin Lighteners,” Gender & Society 22(3): 281–302.
  • May 25 Esther Berry (2008) “The Zombie Commodity: Hair and the Politics of its Globalization,” Postcolonial Studies 11(1): 63–84.

RPQ: Use any event/circumstance/person in popular culture (historic or contemporary) to analyze the politics of hair and skin.