HL90 FI: Race and Empire in the Americas

There are so many great new HL90s to consider this semester! Make sure you check out Hannah Waits’s “Race and Empire in the Americas,” which meets Thursdays, 12:45-2:45.

Tell us about your class! 

“Race and Empire in the Americas” is an examination of how empire has functioned across Central America, South America, and North America since the early 1800s. I have experience teaching and researching in both US and Latin American history, so I’m excited that a class on the Americas allows me to combine themes from American Studies and Latin American Studies into one course. I love transnational studies because I’ve found that looking at the relationships between places and people can highlight culture and politics that are less visible to us if we just think about a single country or region. Empire is such a useful framework because it keeps our focus on the role of power in transnational exchanges. And race is a vital category for studies of empire because race is central to imperial ways of thinking and ways of building and sustaining (and dismantling) social structures.

What’s something you’re excited to share with students? 

We will spend a few weeks looking at how imperial relationships are marketed to US audiences today by examining media like humanitarian aid commercials and tourism advertisements. 

Are you doing any cool projects in class? 

Yes! We will do a short public engagement project to connect course themes to a present-day topic or issue. Students in the past have created K-12 lesson plans, op-eds, advocacy letters, and educational TikTok videos. There will also be several options for the final paper / project. Students can write a traditional paper or select one of several creative options – an oral history interview, screenplay, historical fiction, or online museum exhibit. 

What does your class help us understand about the present?

We will cover themes directly related to this moment. We’ll look at the growth of mass incarceration and policing in communities of color. We’ll examine the ways that popular understandings of disease were connected to discourses about race and empire. And we’ll start the very first week with hurricanes to explore how climate change affects communities differently along lines of race and within the structures of empire. 

What do you want students to take away from the class? 

The practical takeaway from focusing on the topics that we will cover in this course is that taking a longer view allows us to wrestle with the pressing question “how did we get here?” and unpack the larger contexts, antecedents, and patterns that shaped the present moment. That work is essential because 1) the news cycle moves so quickly that it is easy to forget what happened just last week or last month, much less what happened ten years ago or 100 years ago, and 2) if there is something in the present moment that you want to change, historical context can help us understand the elements that made this moment and thus the elements that you can take inspiration from or you can try to alter in order to change the current situation.  

Sounds like a great blend of hist and lit! Have you always loved studying both history and literature? 

Literature yes, History no! And that’s surprising, since I now have a PhD in History. Before I went to college, I hated history because my history classes focused entirely on boring memorization of names, dates, and military battles. (This semester we will read one article about a military battle, and I promise it will not be boring and you will not have to memorize anything.) In college, I discovered that the study of history was really about examining two things that fascinate me – 1) stories, aka the voices and experiences of a wide variety of people from many different backgrounds, and 2) change over time, aka “how did we get here.” I fell in love with the field, and the rest is, well, history. 

How can students learn more? 

Students can visit the Canvas site to check out all of the course topics, readings, and assignments. I’m happy to answer any questions that students might have about the class over email. And I will be at the HL90 preview event and look forward to talking with students about the course then! 

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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