The African American experience spans four hundred years, from the initial settlement of the American continent by Europeans and the establishment of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and down through the present day. Throughout their sufferings and ordeals,the people of African descent who were brought involuntarily to this country found the courage and creativity to "make themselves." They constructed their own unique rituals, traditions and symbols; a distinct spirituality, music, art, dance and folklore; a rich cultural heritage, kinship and community; and a complex body of political and social ideas about the contradictory nature of American democracy and the position of black people within it. In effect, black Americans made their own history, although not always in the manner in which they chose, because they were encumbered by the constraints of institutional racism and white privilege.

This introductory course in the African American experience is largely constructed around the voices and language used by black people themselves. The course is organized chronologically, with an emphasis on the ideas of black social thought, political protest and efforts to create social change. About one half of the course covers the historical foundations and background to the modern black experience, from the struggle against slavery to the Harlem Renaissance. The second half of the course focuses on the past seventy years, from the Great Depression to the twenty-first century.

During our course, we will talk about a wide spectrum of African-American leaders, intellectuals, organizations and institutions. Some have focused their energies primarily in finding ways for the black community to survive discrimination and oppression. Through the development of their unique cultural and social traditions, and the establishment of African-American organizations, black people have managed to sustain themselves in the face of almost constant adversity. Other African Americans have advocated strategies of collective political change, challenging the barriers of inequality in white America. And still others have resorted to more radical means, from the slave rebellions of the nineteenth century to the ghetto uprisings of the late twentieth century, to improve the conditions of the black people. Despite these differences, what brings together nearly all representatives of the black experience are the common efforts to achieve the same goals: the elimination of racism, the realization of democratic rights and greater social fairness within a racially pluralistic society, and achievement of cultural integrity of the black community.

Through the course lectures, required readings and discussions, hopefully students will acquire a fuller understanding about the historical development and social construction of black America: what African Americans have thought about themselves and the larger society, how they have evolved as a community with a distinct culture from slavery to the twenty-first century, and where they may be going as a people.