Overview of the Project

Empire’s Progeny advances through three overlapping modules that prepare students to critique and then practice the production of historical knowledge.  Over the course of the semester, students will collaboratively create a database and mapping site through which they will share ideas and insights about roughly six dozen historical sources that speak to the entanglements of race and imperialism in the Western Hemisphere. Importantly, no student work will be open to the public now or ever except with explicit and individual permission. Students should see these as spaces for experimentation and feedback, where they can attempt daring interpretations and shift their conclusions as they learn.

Students should be aware that this project involves reading, witnessing, and discussing materials that are vehemently racist and describe and condone racial, gendered, and homophobic violence. The study of the history of imperialism necessarily requires engaging with such uncomfortable subjects to expose the forms of power and oppression that made and continue to shape our contemporary world. Students can expect to be offended and outraged by the works that we will analyze. Our discomforts will inform our interpretations and students are encouraged to share their disquiet. Should there be specific sources that a student wishes to excused from, please speak with the professor ahead of time.

We begin Empire’s Progeny with a thorough evaluation of how historical knowledge is created. Historians visit archives and museums to consult primary sources – the documents and objects that survive from past ages. However, the vast majority of people in colonial Latin America – including slaves, freedmen, indigenous persons, and lower-class European settlers – left no words written in their own hand; therefore, the sources we use to understand the past (especially the colonial past) were almost invariably created by elites and their oppressive institutions. Moreover, sources such as Inquisition records, legal documents, and slave-ship manifests were all produced for the very purpose of creating and sustaining the unequal power relations between colonizers and colonized populations. What then can we understand about the lives of enslaved Africans in Cuba, for instance, if almost every shred of evidence we have about them was created by slavetraders and slaveowners? Through this and similar questions, we will analyze how the production of knowledge about colonized peoples was a tool of European imperialism.

Our critiques of historical sources will then inform students’ interpretation of such untruthful and prejudicial documents. To continue with the example above, even if the slaveowners wrote the documents, these are still what we have to make sense of the past. Students will peruse and select from list of curated and edited primary sources, each with a short introduction providing context. Individually and collaboratively in class, students will then analyze their sources for how they further our shared understanding of the variations and transformations of racial thought and experience through the colonization of the Americas. Through a process of drafts and edits, students then write a short essay on their source, which is then shared with peers on a common map and timeline platform. Over the course of the semester, each student will analyze two historical sources, which, added together, will form a database of dozens of essays.

Finally, students complete Empire’s Progeny by writing a longer essay that brings together course materials, their selected sources, and the essays written by their peers to make a sustained interpretation about race and imperialism in the Americas. Students will treat each other as colleagues, scholars, and collaborators in the creation of historical knowledge.