HL90 EF: White Rage: Progress and Backlash in American History

We’ve still got more HL90s to share with you! Andrew Pope is teaching “White Rage: Progress and Backlash in American History” this fall, and talked with us about the importance of understanding history for our present moment. (He also talked to us about cats. And Cats.)

What inspired you to teach this class?

The night Americans elected Donald Trump as president, my colleague Safia Aidid and I exchanged messages on Twitter about how his election was both unexpected but also completely predictable given American history. I commented that his election helped vindicate historian Carol Anderson’s argument that white rage is the animating element of American history from slavery to the present. Safia encouraged me to teach a course about it. The next day, I sketched out what a syllabus might look like for such a course. I’m thrilled to have the chance to finally teach it this semester. Unfortunately, the argument remains as relevant as ever.

What is one text you’re excited to share with students this semester?

Just one? Suzan-Lori Parks’ play Father Comes Home might be it. If you have five minutes—not enough time to read one of her plays but still want to read something brilliant—her commencement address at Mount Holyoke is a gem. Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America is the best history book I’ve read in the past year. I’m eager to see how students compare the modern white power movement to what is often considered more mainstream instances of white rage that we study.

What can your class help us understand about the present?

The expressions of rage that politicians like Donald Trump embody and promote are not the only ways that we live with white rage today. Rage is expressed through the avenues of power people have available to them. Rage is not just an explosive moment of public anger. Throughout the course, we’ll examine the different ways white rage has shaped our institutions, our interactions, and what we consider to be “normal.” The goal is to have a more expansive understanding of what it means to dismantle white rage and its legacies than merely electing a different president.

On a totally different note, what is the best or worst thing you’ve watched since Harvard sent everybody home and we started social distancing?

Cats, the movie. My expectations were so low. I knew so many people hated it. But I love cats (the animals! I have three—folks in the class will likely meet all of them at various points each week). And I thought, just maybe, with low enough expectations and a pure enough love of cats that I might actually enjoy the movie. Nope. It was that bad. But also somehow not bad enough to be enjoyable.

For more information, you can see the syllabus on Canvas or email Andrew!

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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