This course examines the writings of those African Americans who have reflected most profoundly on the American regime and their place in it, from the time of the nation’s founding to the present. This course features the writings of prominent thinkers such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, James Baldwin, MLK, Malcom X, and more. The aim of this course is to expose fellows to the multifaceted character of America’s political history, and how the political tradition of Black Americans has made an indelible impression on that history.

Image Credit: Statue of Frederick Douglass, Cam Pac Swire via Flickr | Frederick Douglass, an American Slave 01, Byronv2 via Flickr

Diana Schaub on Booker T. Washington


Diana Schaub

Diana J. Schaub is Professor of Political Science at Loyola University Maryland and a member of the Hoover Institution’s task force on The Virtues of a Free Society. From 2004 to 2009 she was a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session


  • Augustus Washington, “African Colonization—By a Man of Color,” 1851
  • Frederick Douglass, “Prejudice Not Natural,” 1849
    • “African Civilization Society,” 1859
    • Chs. 6 and 7 from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 1845
    • “The Last Flogging” from My Bondage and My Freedom, 1855
    • “What are Colored People Doing for Themselves,” 1848
  • Martin Delany, “Means of Elevation” and “A Glance at Ourselves—Conclusion” from
    The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States(Humanities Press, 2004)
  • Frederick Douglass, “American Slavery,” 1847 (Excerpts)
  • “The Address of the Southern Delegates in Congress to their Constituents,” 1849
    • “The Constitution and Slavery,” 1849
    • “Change of Opinion Announced,” 1951
    • “Speech on the Dred Scott Decision,” 1857
    • “The Constitution of the United States: Is It Pro-Slavery or Anti-Slavery,” 1860


Discussion Questions:

  1. What were the main arguments of those who embraced emigration/colonization (either back to Africa or to other lands in the New World)? What was their assessment of the prospects for racial equality and racial comity in the United States?
  2. Douglass was foremost among those black thinkers who opposed schemes of
    colonization, whether proposed by white organizations like the American Colonization Society or black organizations like the African Civilization Society. What are the grounds for his opposition?
  3. What do Delany and Douglass mean by self-elevation? Why is it necessary? Are there internal as well as external obstacles to self-elevation resulting from the experience of slavery? What does the stress on self-elevation indicate about their understanding of freedom? How is self-elevation to be accomplished? What is the rhetorical purpose and effect of the stern language used by Delany and Dou glass in speaking to their own people?
  4. Over the course of his career as an abolitionist, Douglass moved from regarding the Constitution as an iniquitous compact that ought to be annulled to regarding the Constitution as “a glorious liberty document” that would bring about an end to slavery. What were the reasons for and the effects of this transformation? Select a particular constitutional clause that relates to slavery and explain the change in his interpretation of it.


  • Frederick Douglass, “Why Should a Colored Man Enlist?,” 1863
    • “What the Black Man Wants,” 1865
    • “The Nation’s Problem,” 1889
  • Booker T. Washington, “The Struggle for an Education,” from Up from Slavery (Dover October 1995)
    • “The Educational Outlook in the South,” 1884
    • “Atlanta Exposition Address,” 1895
    • “Democracy and Education,” 1896
    • “Early Problems of Freedom,” 1907
    • “The Intellectuals and the Boston Mob,” 1911
    • “Letter to J.R. Barlow,” 1911
    • “My View of Segregation Laws,” 1915


Discussion Questions:

  1. Why does Douglass favor justice (“fair play”) over charity (“benevolence”) for black Americans? What does his repeated call to “Do nothing with us”
    mean in terms of societal and governmental responsibilities toward the freed people?
  2. Why does Douglass counsel black Americans against “race pride”? Why does Douglass
    consider “the Negro problem” a misnomer for “the nation’s problem” and how does this affect the kind of solutions proposed to help black Americans? What principles and policies does Douglass recommend in order to eliminate color prejudice from American society?
  3. On what do Douglass and Washington agree? Where do they disagree? You might
    especially consider their differing judgments with respect to the 15th Amendment. To what do you attribute this difference?
  4. What understanding of human nature informed Washington’s policy of gradualism?
  5. Washington always made clear that he believed African Americans had a high destiny in America and a particular contribution to make to the life of the nation. What were the essential features of that destiny?


  • W.E.B. DuBois, “The Conservation of Races,” 1897
    • “The Philadelphia Negro,” 1899
    • “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” from The Souls of Black Folk, 1903
    • “Of the Training of Black Men,” from The Souls of Black Folk, 1903
    • “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,” 1903
    • “The Talented Tenth,” 1903
    • “Agitation,” 1910
  • Ralph Ellison, “In a Strange Country,” 1944
  • James Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village,” 1953


Discussion Questions:

  1. Why does DuBois seek to “conserve” the races? How would this conservation help the future of the Negro race as well as the future of world civilization?
  2. What does DuBois mean by “double consciousness”? Would Douglass, Delany, and
    Washington consider this an accurate rendering of the acculturation of blacks in
  3. DuBois is known as one of the great defenders of higher education, particularly for the “talented tenth.” What does he understand the purposes of liber
    al education to be? Is his understanding of liberal education compatible with his call for “the conservation of races” and the preservation of racial and cultural distinctness?
  4. According to DuBois, what is the role of “agitation” in securing equal rights under the law? How would Washington respond to DuBois on this point?
  5. Does Ellison hint at a solution to the problem of double consciousness? What does
    Parker learn about how to be a “black Yank” while among the Welsh?


  • Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Power of Nonviolence,” 1958
    • “The Social Organization of Nonviolence,” 1959 Commitment Card
    • “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” 1963
    • “I Have a Dream,” 1963
    • “Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom,” 1966
  • Joseph Jackson, “Annual Address,” 1964
  • Zora Neale Hurston, “Letter to the Orlando Sentinel”
  • Malcolm X, selection from The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Ballantine Books, 1992)
    • “Message to the Grass Roots,” 1963
    • “A Declaration of Independence,” 1964
    • “The Ballot or the Bullet,” 1964
    • “At the Audubon,” 1964


Discussion Questions:

  1. Why does King reject violence as a response to oppression? Why does Malcolm X
    endorse violence (or at least the threat of violence)? How does Malcolm X’s
    understanding of political action compare to the right of revolution as articulated by John Locke and enshrined in the Declaration of Independence?
  2. King famously argues for the technique of civil disobedience. (Note: many forms of non-violent direct action, such as boycotts, do not involve civil disobedience.) In their own ways, both Joseph Jackson and Malcolm X reject this technique. Explain the criticism of either Jackson or Malcolm X and then describe what King might say in response.
  3. Both Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. could be described as
    integrationists. Other black thinkers believe it is a mistake to posit integration as the aim of the struggle for civil rights. Some elements of this critique can be seen in Booker T. Washington. It becomes much more emphatic and explicit in Zora Neale Hurston and Malcolm X. Explain and explore the reasons for their rejection of integration.


  • Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Chs, 2 and 3, pp. 24–56, 58–60, 75–84, from Black Power (1967)
  • Bayard Rustin, “The Myth of Black Studies,” from Time on Two Crosses
    (Cleis Press, 2015)
  • Ralph
    Ellison, “When Does a Black Join the Middle Class,” 1975
  • Henry Louis Gates, “Breaking the Silence,” 2004
  • bell hooks, “Killing Rage: Militant Resistance,” 1995
    • “Refusing to be a Victim,” 1995
    • “Overcoming White Supremacy: A Comment,” 1995
  • Cornel West, “Malcolm X and Black Rage” from Race Matters
    (Beacon Press, 1993)
  • Shelby Steele, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America (Harper Perennial, 1998)
    • Ch. 1, pp. 1–8, 14–20
    • Ch.2, pp. 26–30
    • Ch. 3, pp. 40–49
    • Ch. 4, pp. 57–61, 70–75
    • Ch. 5, pp. 77–80, 86–92
    • Ch. 6, pp. 93–96
    • Ch. 7, pp. 111–25
    • Ch. 8, pp. 138–48
    • Ch. 9, pp. 149–51, 164–65

Discussion Questions:

  1. Carmichael and Hamilton, the authors of Black Power, and Shelby Steele in his book The Content of Our Character are centrally concerned with self-esteem. Compare and contrast their analyses of what self-esteem is, why it is so important, how demeaning stereotypes affect self-esteem, and how self-esteem can be achieved.
  2. The Black Power authors deny there is a conflict “between the so-called American Creed and American practice. The Creed is supposed to contain considerations of equality and liberty, at least certainly equal opportunity, and justice. The fact is, of course, that these are simply words which were not even originally intended to have applicability to black people.” What is the authors’ understanding of black people’s place in America? What does this assessment mean for political practice? How would thinkers like Douglass, King, and Jackson respond to this argument?
  3. Shelby Steele and bell hooks agree in certain respects. They both call for a renewed focus on personal responsibility and both stress the need to “decolonize the mind” (freeing oneself from the psychological legacy of slavery). However, they disagree profoundly in their assessment of the nature and extent of racism today. bell hooks analyzes white supremacy. Shelby Steele analyzes white guilt. Explain and explore each analysis.
  4. The authors of Black Power are extremely critical of the middle class, claiming that “the values of that class are in themselves anti-humanist.” Ellison, Gates, and Steele offer defenses of the middle class. What are the essential elements of those vindications?
  5. The expression and provoking of rage is central to Malcolm X. Later thinkers disagree about whether this rage is healthy or unhealthy. bell hooks argues for rage; Cornell West is more critical of it. Explain their respective positions.

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