West and Glaude launch national curriculum on black history, American democracy

March 3, 2006, 4:15 p.m.

Princeton professors Cornel West and Eddie Glaude have teamed up with talk-show host Tavis Smiley to launch a national movement to take critical lessons of black history and American democracy out of the classroom and into people's homes, churches, book clubs and civic groups.

The Princeton professors have written an unconventional public course available online called the "Covenant Curriculum: A Study of Black Democratic Action," and so far they may have up to 2 million students. An extensive and far-ranging reading list includes works by Thomas Jefferson, Ida B. Wells, Toni Morrison, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Michael Eric Dyson. The goal is to place the contributions of black Americans into historical context and to prepare individuals and households to take action in response to the issues of health care, crime and educational disparities across the country.

"I resist the idea that to talk about black America is to somehow engage in a form of narrow identity politics," said Glaude, an associate professor of religion and the acting director of Princeton's Program in African-American Studies. "When you talk about the issue of blacks' access to health care, it’s not a black issue; we've just rendered it in black terms. This is a reflection of the American story, particularly to the extent that black suffering has been an expression of failure of American democracy."

The Covenant Curriculum is a companion to a book titled "The Covenant with Black America," which is a product of six years worth of annual symposia hosted by Smiley to explore the challenges faced by black Americans.

Smiley asked West and Glaude to write the curriculum -- which was unveiled Feb. 25 at the latest State of the Black Union symposium in Houston -- to serve as one of the cornerstones of a 10-city "Covenant Tour" that wraps up this week. The curriculum and the book, which also has contributions from West, have been presented to groups of 2,500 to 3,000 people at churches in St. Louis, Atlanta, Los Angeles and other major cities on the tour.

"What we need is an examination of ourselves, our history and our present that really raises the question, 'What does it take for us to wake up?'" West, the Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion, told the policy-makers, academics, community leaders and others who gathered for the seventh annual symposium Feb. 25.

"It's time for everyday people to wake up and take power in the face of elite abusive power," said West, adding that "this particular kind of effort and action becomes the catalyst for the expansion of democracy across the board for citizens of various colors and genders and classes and sexual orientation."

After more than 55 million viewers tuned in to watch the original broadcast of the State of the Black Union that launched the Covenant Curriculum last month, more than 2 million people logged on to the online syllabus, and Web logs tracking time spent on the site indicate they expressed more than casual interest, Glaude said. He is confident this demonstrates people are embracing the curriculum.

Devised as a 15-week syllabus, the curriculum explores American democracy in the context of the struggles of blacks in the United States by incorporating historical speeches; works of social analysis, history, politics and religion; novels and poetry; analytical essays; and movies and documentaries.

The curriculum is based on the concept that the health of democracy is best examined by scrutinizing the people who suffer within the democratic society. It begins with W.E.B. DuBois' examination of "the problem of the color line" in "The Souls of Black Folk" and moves on to a discussion of hypocrisy in the Declaration of Independence, the Civil War and the era of Jim Crow, before ending with an examination of the black social movement and black democratic action.

"The covenant curriculum has been created … to help guide high school students and college students in the study of black democratic action," Smiley said when launching the initiative. "If you are a teacher, a professor, a parent, a community organizer, anyone who leads or works with young people, this is a tool for you. This curriculum is for anyone quite frankly who wants a history lesson and contemporary foundation for African-American progressive political movement."

The self-guided curriculum calls on participants to independently collect the course materials, directed by a week-by-week schedule. There are standard and advanced versions of the curriculum with varying reading loads, and the standard curriculum includes assignments, such as creating a timeline of the black experience in America and interviewing a community member who was part of the black freedom movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Princeton faculty members whose materials figure prominently in the advanced curriculum include Glaude, West, James McPherson, Toni Morrison, Nell Painter, Sean Wilentz and Albert Raboteau.

"What we're trying to do is get everyday people to reflect on their circumstances so they can transform their own lives," Glaude said. "So the Covenant is just a lightning rod. We trust everyday people enough -- we trust black people enough -- to make the right decisions if they are rightly informed. And we think they can change their circumstances."

"The irony implicit in American democracy is that black folks stand as its stringent testing and its highest possibility for freedom," Glaude added. "The curriculum functions on three levels: one, to expose the contradictions at the heart of American democracy; two, to demonstrate the various ways black folks have struggled for democracy in the face of those contradictions; and three, to inform our own current practice for bringing about change with the lessons of the efforts from the past."

The first organization to adopt the curriculum is the Jamestown Project at Yale University, a national consortium of academics, policy-makers and community and business leaders with the mission of enriching American democracy through scholarship, social justice projects and grassroots efforts. West is a founding board member, while Glaude is a fellow of the Jamestown Project.

More information about the curriculum is available at www.covenantwithblackamerica.com.