This is a syllabus that suggests readings for a course exploring the histories of resistance, and activism, through the lens of cultural history. Our hope is that teachers could use these readings to help their students understand the long historical context for present-day cultural movements. Dakota Access Pipeline Protests, kneeling Colin Kaepernick, and strikes by Uber drivers–all such modern movements are all a part of a long genealogy of cultural resistance.

Though histories of resistance movements often give in to the temptation of presenting a tale of progress and triumph, we have taken a different approach with the readings for this course. As the primary and secondary sources listed here demonstrate, resistance as a trajectory of step-by-step progress is oversimplified, naïve, and even dangerous, as it suggests that once a “victory” has been achieved, we can relax into complacency. But it is also not our goal to suggest that resistance is hopeless. These readings also demonstrate that activists have used whatever cultural means available to them to effect genuine change across generations.

Movements have victories and failures, they evolve or merge with other causes, they seem to fade and then reignite at different moments in history. Resistance can appear in surprising places, like family relationships, fashion choices, or music. Sometimes counterculture resistance in one decade becomes the dominant culture in another. Sometimes oppressed groups in one context become the oppressors in another. Cultures and forms of resistance also do not stand alone; they overlap, intertwine, learn from one another, cooperate and disagree, and sometimes share surprising parallels.

To reflect this complicated dynamic, we have organized this course thematically rather than chronologically. You will find readings in some weeks that might just as easily fit into another week–this reinforces the goal of this syllabus, to teach students that no movement exists in a bubble, no form of resistance is independent from other cultural, social, political, or familial influences and connections.

This syllabus contains far more reading than any course could hope to cover, but we hope it will serve as a helpful jumping-off point. For each week, we have narrowed the primary and secondary sources to several “required” readings, and then listed additional “recommended” readings below those.

Week 1: Introduction to Cultural Histories of Resistance

What is culture? What is resistance? What is cultural resistance? In the course’s introductory week, we explore definitions and guiding questions. These theoretical readings offer takes on each of these questions, from James Scott’s work on the resistance of oppressed groups, to Althusser’s exploration of exactly what they might be resisting. Lawrence Levine and Natalie Zemon Davis, in essays from a 1992 roundtable in the American Historical Review, introduce students to the concept of cultural history. Together, these readings introduce big-picture concepts that we hope students will continue to unpack throughout the course.

Readings:

Week 2: Indigenous Resistance

Spraypaint from the Native American occupation of Alcatraz
Loco Steve, Wikimedia Commons

This week will trace how indigenous peoples in North America endured a centuries-long project to obliterate their cultural worlds and expropriate their ancestral lands. The primary sources will show how Natives thought pragmatically about their encounters with colonizers but also fought hard to retain their spiritual and cultural norms. We’ll see how the Spanish empire’s dreams of peaceful conversion and the United States’ official policy of conquest drew largely on formations of cultural difference. We’ll see how Natives came to understand that the invaders in their territories were not just out to steal their land; they were bent on “reforming” them. And, finally, we’ll see how the civil rights movements of the twentieth century stirred Natives to dramatically imagine indigenous futures, rather than lament tragic pasts.

Primary Sources

Required:
Recommended:

Secondary Sources

Required:
Recommended:

Week 3: Slavery and Emancipation

In recent years, historians of slavery have shifted this focus of studies of enslaved resistance from mass resistance to the everyday resistance of enslaved people, especially enslaved women. This transition centered Black people’s culture in discussions of resistance. From religion to dance, enslaved people’s culture represented their resistance to the institution of slavery and their dehumanization. After emancipation, freed people’s cultural practices acted as a site to demonstrate their personhood and freedom. These readings show students the complexities of enslaved and free(d) people’s resistance, how white and Black people conveyed and understood resistance through different types of cultural mediums, and how experiments in freedom both transformed and were informed by Black culture.

An advertisement for a runaway slave
Source: freedomonthemove.org

Primary Sources

Required

Secondary Sources

Required
Recommended

Week 4: Carceral Cultures

States have often relied on detention and incarceration to maintain social control and power over its population. With legacies of enslavement as the roots of discipline and punishment in American history, this week investigates how the culture of the carceral state, and the resistance against it, has evolved over time. The carceral state concerns matters of surveillance and its technologies, including law enforcement, national security, and the military, and how these institutions consider discourses and ideas of race, gender, and age in establishing control over all domains of social life. The readings show how resistance movements against the carceral state push back on the state’s attempt to establish physical and figurative boundaries in public space, and speak out against the racism which the carceral state depends upon.

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

Required
Recommended

Week 5: Environmental

The environment has long been a site of conflict and its use a source of injustice. In recent years, environmental historians have increasingly moved beyond studies of so-called wilderness and conservation to focus on many different types of environments–and the inequality that has been built or introduced into many of them. These readings introduce students not only to histories of environmental injustice, but to cases in which minority groups have fought for access to a safe environment, whether in our national parks or in urban neighborhoods. They also explore the urgency of activists attempting to counter climate change.

A wooden structure with a sign that reads "white women."
National Park ServiceWhite Women’s Comfort Station at Shenandoah National Park.

Primary Sources

Required
Recommended

Secondary Sources

Required
Recommended

Week 6: Labor and Capitalism

This week’s materials encourage us to think about capitalism and labor beyond a problem of economy. Labor history of the United States highlights the intersectionality among a broad range of evolving sociopolitical, socioeconomic, and sociocultural factors that shaped the country over time. Organized thematically, both primary and secondary sources focus on slavery, the formation and fragmentation of American working class, conflicts as well as shares of interests among workers, workers themselves, and capital, agency in the labor movement, unionization, working-class culture, race, and gender. Ultimately, these materials serve as a starting point for us to further explore the following question: How can we locate more precisely specific historical moments and actors regarding a group of people whom we call laborers?

Primary

Secondary

Required
Recommended

Week 7: Migration

Migration has been at the center of conversations for several decades, and certain policies written to curtail migration have been fueled by racist narratives that aim to sustain specific individuals in power while simultaneously pressing certain groups. Moreover, heightened anti-immigrant sentiments and subsequent violence have created fear within targeted communities. As a result, the voices and resistance of these individuals have often been disregarded until recently. These readings focus on individuals’ experiences as migrants and refugees, but also emphasizes the resilience of migrants and other activists. These individuals have not only fought for immigrant rights, but have transformed their spaces, cultures, communities, and relationships.

Primary Sources

Required
Recommended

Secondary Sources

Required
Recommended

Week 8: Urban

Urban history is complicated. Not only do urban policies and practices aim to form physical layouts and infrastructure, but they also intend to shape the class and racial demographics of cities. Through these discriminatory practices, people of color and the poor are often subjected to policies that negatively affect their neighborhoods, such as the building of a freeway to urban renewal. These readings focus on how residents have shaped their neighborhoods and cities despite certain racist policies. They raise questions about how cities shape people and how people shape cities.

Primary Sources

Required
Recommended

Secondary Sources

Required
Recommended

Week 9: Technology

Technologies can offer incredible tools for mobilizing resistance, but they can also serve as tools of domination that activists fight against. These readings offer an exploration of both sides of the debate, from how activists have used a wide range of tools to organize resistance, to how technology companies have built unjust divisions into those very same tools. This week also touches on the question of how to document and remember these sometimes ephemeral forms of resistance.

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

Required
Recommended

Week 10: Gender

Gender, as historian Joan Scott memorably put it, can be a “useful category for historical analysis,” and the relationships between male and female (either actual or archetypal) can be used as a lens to understand all of history. This sentiment, we believe, comes across in much of the rest of this syllabus. This week, therefore, is for the explicit study of female cultures of resistance.

We first trace a classic narrative of the waves of American feminism with an article from Suffragist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the well-known Feminine Mystique and the excerpt from the controversial book Our Bodies, Ourselves (which we encourage our students to leaf through in its entirety). We then go beyond this narrative with an essay on intersectionality from Audre Lorde, the statement from the Combahee River Collective and the sensational modern documentary No Más Bebés. Our secondary readings accompany these pieces to explicate the history of feminism, intersectional feminism, the contested ground of the female reproductive system, and some general cultural histories specifically of women throughout the American 19th and 20th centuries.

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

Required
Recommended

Week 11: Sexuality/Queer Culture

Immediately following “gender week,” our syllabus takes on the cultures of people who subvert gender expectations. Our primary sources introduce us to lesbian responses to third wave feminism, a well-known documentary on urban cultures of queer people of color, a devestating recounting of the AIDS epidemic and its effect on gay culture, a published diary of a queer African-American woman, and a series of controversial artworks depiciting the Virgin Mary, sexed. Secondary sources explore these themes further, and recommended readings widen the field to include more treatments of sexuality itself, along with queer cultures.

Primary Sources

Required
Recommended

Secondary Sources

Required
Recommended

Week 12: The Culture Industry

The “culture industry” is a term coined by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer to explain the ways in which popular culture can be used to standardize visual (film, television, etc), auditory (radio, music, etc), and print (magazines, books, etc) cultures, among others, to coerce and control mass society. This week’s readings investigate the power dynamics of mass consumption and the institutions involved in this process, with particular focus on how cultures of resistance influence consumption and demand.

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

Required
Recommended

Week 13: Aesthetics of Resistance

An aesthetics of resistance explores the ways in which beauty, fashion, and material culture have acted as modes of cultural expression and means of resistance in the U.S. Many of the people featured in these readings considered beauty, fashion, and material culture both personal and political. These readings show how consistent struggles over power, culture, space, and the body occurred, especially for marginalized people. The “Aesthetics of Resistance” week provides students with an intimate and personal lens into how individuals understood and interacted with ideas and practices of resistance.

Primary Sources

Required
Recommended

Secondary Sources

Week 14: Civil Rights and Youth Culture

This week we’ll see the civil rights movements of the postwar era as a major shift in the cultural politics of the United States. Postwar conformity gave way to the sudden explosion of a vocal and aggressive youth culture. The usual forums for political discussion collapsed, and new venues opened up–the stage at Woodstock ‘69, where Jimi Hendrix sounded the horrors and angst of the Vietnam War in his explosively distorted guitar; the streets of Washington, D.C., where major figures and everyday people marched for their own humanity; and the streets of Los Angeles, where Chicanos framed their public protests as a “reconquista” of their homes and identities during the tumult of the Vietnam War. We’ll see how the music of the “counterculture” animated this rights activism and then, eventually, became mainstream culture. And we’ll see how the many civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s voiced the concerns and demands of oppressed and suppressed groups, and paved the way for activist cultures of the 21st century.

Primary Sources

Required
Recommended

Secondary Sources

Week 15: Importing and Exporting US Culture

Why and how should we study the cliché: the Americanization of global culture? This week’s materials encourage us to reconsider a few common myths on the shaping and movement of American culture; that American culture means white, Christian, and capitalist, that similar cultural phenomena which occurred elsewhere as in the United States were under the influence of American culture, and that the cultural exchange among the United States and other regions was natural rather than fruits of conscious efforts. While this week’s chronology privileges the second half of the 20th century, both primary and secondary sources illustrate the complicity of the origin of American culture, how the imbalance of geopolitical power worldwide and of cultural power in the United States shaped American culture and its movement, how the cultures of others shaped American identities, and how American culture appropriated others as well as being appropriated by others.

Primary Sources

Required
Recommended

Secondary Sources

Required
Recommended