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"The Color Line": Race & Empire in British, French & North American Worlds, c.1860-1945 - HIS00108I

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Amanda Behm
  • Credit value: 30 credits
  • Credit level: I
  • Academic year of delivery: 2021-22

Module summary

‘The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the Color Line’, argued American civil rights activist and author W. E. B. DuBois in 1903. This module explores debates over race and equality which gripped the world beginning around the mid-nineteenth century, focusing on the ideological and political dynamics of, and resistance to, racial discrimination in British and French empires and the United States from 1860 to the 1930s. We will also consider the Color Line’s major antecedents and legacies: i.e., nineteenth-century debates over slavery and colonial violence, and issues of race that shaped decolonization and the Cold War.

What was the Color Line? Was it unitary? Who drew it, and why? In answering these questions, our discussions will emphasize issues of economic, cultural, and geopolitical identity; settler colonialism; and conflicting approaches to empire and diversity. In the spring term, seminar sessions will address the course topic chronologically and thematically. We will interrogate primary documents, landmark historical interpretations, and recent scholarship, engaging and challenging influential concepts of human difference and their implications for ongoing projects of decolonizing knowledge.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Spring Term 2021-22 to Summer Term 2021-22

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

  • To provide students with the opportunity to study particular historical topics in depth;
  • To develop students’ ability to examine a topic from a range of perspectives and to strengthen their ability to work critically and reflectively with secondary and primary material; and
  • To combine seminar preparation and discussion of the topic being studied with extended independent work on a project devised by the student.

Module learning outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Have acquired a deep knowledge of the specific topic studied
  • Have developed their ability to use and synthesise a range of primary and secondary sources
  • Be able to evaluate the arguments that historians have made about the topic studied
  • Have developed their ability to study independently through seminar-based teaching
  • Gain experience of working collaboratively through an assessed group project

Module content

Teaching Programme:

This 30-credit module is taught through a weekly two-hour seminar run from weeks 2-10 in the spring term and a four week period of project work undertaken in weeks 1-4 of the summer term. Students will complete their group project work within that period and tutors should arrange to be available for consultation with students twice during that time. There will be no formal seminar teaching during this period. 

Seminar topics are subject to variation, but are likely to include the following

1. ‘The problem of the twentieth century’
2. Du Bois: his worlds and his ideas
3. Slavery, emancipation, and imperial crisis
4. Whiteness and settlerism as historical problems
5. Reconstruction’s failures and Jim Crow in the United States
6. The ‘race question’ in the British Empire
7. Difference and 'civilization' in the French Empire
8. Early twentieth-century liberation struggles
9. Present history and living legacies


Task Length % of module mark
3000 Word Group Project
N/A 33
Not-online take-home exam (1 day)
24-Hour Open Exam
8 hours 67

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Formative assessment will be a group presentation between weeks 5 and 7 of the spring term.

For summative assessment students take a 24-hour open exam in the summer term assessment period, usually released at 11:00 on day 1 and submitted at 11:00 on day 2. For those taking two Explorations modules the 24-hour open exams are held on consecutive days, with both papers released at 11:00 on day 1 and both due for submission on 11:00 of day 3.

Students also submit a piece of written work for their group project of no more than 3,000 words in week 5 of the summer term.

The exam carries 67% of assessment and the project element 33% for this module.

Students who need to be reassessed in the project component of this module (for example due to Exceptional Circumstance) will be required to submit in the summer reassessment period a shorter individual project (2,000 words) which should include a short reflection (500 words max) on group work, considering how this project could be expanded if a team of three to four people were working on it. Students should consider how they would divide up the research tasks, and reflect briefly on problems which might arise and how they would manage them. Module tutors will advise on the content and design of this project. 


Task Length % of module mark
3000 Word Group Project
N/A 33
Not-online take-home exam (1 day)
24-Hour Open Exam
8 hours 67

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment task, students will typically receive written feedback that will include comments and a mark within 10 working days of submission.

Work will be returned to students in their seminars and may be supplemented by the tutor giving some oral feedback to the whole group. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their procedural work during their tutor’s student hours. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 20 working days of the submission deadline unless submitted in week 5 of the summer term, in which case these are available within 25 working days. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.  

Indicative reading

For term time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of preliminary reading:

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. Lines of descent: W. E. B. Du Bois and the emergence of identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.

Lake, Marilyn and Henry Reynolds. Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.