BA American Studies / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Harlem and the State of Urban America

Course unit fact file
Unit code AMER30511
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Available as a free choice unit? No


In the course of the twentieth century, the United States, a country founded on a suspicion of cities, became an overwhelmingly urban society. It was a trend that prompted much debate, and that led attitudes to lurch from regarding America’s ‘great cities’ as sentinels of modernity, to thinking of them by mid-century as ‘festering sores,’ drained of resources and wreathed in poverty, and later still, sites of a ‘crisis’ that threatened to tear through the national fabric. Few places provided as powerful a lens onto these issues as did Harlem, New York. A place described ‘with almost mythical distinction’, Harlem won national, indeed global recognition as a ‘Negro Mecca’ in the 1920s, and the ‘Capital of black America’ by the 1960s. This module examines the political, economic, and cultural processes by which Harlem became an important center of black life in the United States, and scrutinizes the symbolic meanings that were fastened to it throughout these decades. The course is also designed to provide a platform from which it will be possible to survey the place of urban issues in American social and political thought more generally. While thinking about Harlem we will also attempt to consider the ‘State of Urban America’, meaning the changing condition of urban space in American life, as well as the sense, expressed by many writers and activists, that cities were sovereign territories, invested with political and cultural capital, what the poet Amiri Baraka called ‘city-states’. Students will consult a diverse array of documents, including historical and literary texts, photographic collections, films, and works of political activism to examine these broad issues in detail.


  • To examine the profile and place of Harlem in African American thought and culture in the long twentieth century.
  • To consider the broad structural processes—of segregation, migration, deindustrialization, and gentrification—by which Harlem was formed and reshaped in the twentieth century.
  • Familiarize students with the changing place of cities and urban space in American social thought, and to encourage reflection on the key conceptual debates in urban studies.
  • To develop skills of critical thought, close analysis, and advanced abilities at working with printed source materials.
  • To refine abilities at working with a variety of sources (esp. literature, photography, social science, and political texts), and to develop the appropriate registers for doing so.

Knowledge and understanding

  • Possess an understanding of the history of Harlem, and its symbolic importance for African Americans
  • Understand how structural factors like racial segregation and migration shaped Harlem, and similar African American communities.
  • Ability to interpret and use a broad array of media (including text, photograph, and film)

Intellectual skills

  • Possess skills of critical interpretation, synthesis, and interpretation.
  • understand and analyze a range of English Renaissance texts
  • engage critically with secondary material and critical debates

Practical skills

  • Be comfortable working with large bodies of source information (600+ pages of primary materials)
  • Possess a competent register for interpreting a wide-array of materials, including photography, literature, and political texts.
  • Be able to carry out both independent and group-based assignments within the allotted time. 
  • Be able to deliver a detailed presentation / lead discussions of materials / produce extended written responses.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Ability to carry out independent research: identifying relevant materials, synthesizing, producing cogent reports.
  • Development of verbal skills, through seminar-based discussion, and a group-based project/ presentation.
  • Ability to work independently and in small groups.

Employability skills

The course will enhance skills in critical analysis, textual analysis and the ability to formulate and defend an argument in front of a group. It will refine communication skills, both written and oral.

Assessment methods

Research Essay /Assignment 40%

Essay 60%

Feedback methods

  • Oral feedback on group presentation
  • Written feedback on the presentation script, and on the essay
  • Additional one-to-one oral feedback (during consultation hour or by making an appointment)

Recommended reading

Suggested Reading

Each of the following works will be helpful in preparing for this course, and you may wish to consider purchasing one of the following. 

* James de Jongh, Vicious Modernism: Black Harlem and the Literary Imagination (New York, 1990; repub. 2009).

* Paula J. Massood, Making a Promised Land: Harlem in Twentieth-Century Photography and Film (Rutgers University Press, 2013)

* Robert Beauregard, Voices of Decline: The Postwar Fate of U.S. Cities (New York, 2002)

* Brian Goldstein, The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle Over Harlem (Cambridge, Mass., 2017)

* Andrew M. Fearnley and Daniel Matlin, ed., Race Capital? Harlem as Setting and Symbol (New York, 2018)

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 2
Lectures 11
Seminars 22
Independent study hours
Independent study 165

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Andrew Fearnley Unit coordinator

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