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Early American Race Theory

ENGL 057.001

In his 1787 Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson famously focuses on the “real distinctions which nature has made” between whites and blacks to demonstrate why it would be unwise “to retain and incorporate the blacks into the state.”  This course analyzes texts treating processes of racial classification from the 1760s through the Civil War.  Throughout the course, we will focus on what qualities early U.S. racial theorists, from Jefferson to Frederick Douglas, believed suited or precluded individuals for citizenship in a republic. As we read, we will pay particular attention to how theories of race and citizenship interweave with questions about religion, class, gender and sexuality.  How do notions of various kinds of difference intersect and complicate each other?  How do they sometimes erect boundaries between populations and sometimes dissolve them? Furthermore, we will examine how theories of race resonate in colonial and U.S. literary texts.  Among other works, we will read Unca Eliza Winkfield’s The Female American (1767), Leonora Sansay’s Secret History; or, The Horrors of St. Domingo (1808), James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826), William Wells Brown’s Clotel; or the President’s Daughter (1853), Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” (1855), and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861).

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