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“To sit down and dream, to sit and read,
To sit and learn about the world 
Outside our world of here and now - 
Our problem world” 
- Langston Hughes

Brian Purnell teaches with three goals in mind: to value his student’s experience, to build on these experiences with historical knowledge, and to provide opportunities for synthesis of this new knowledge into changed perceptions of the world. Such a journey takes place over nearly four centuries of American history - from slave revolutions in Haiti to the picket lines of Brooklyn in the 1960s. Central to his classes is an engagement with primary sources and an opportunity for interrogative historical thinking. It’s no easy task in classes that routinely explore the legacy of slavery, police brutality, and the modern day Black Lives Matter movement. Nonetheless, Purnell’s classrooms remain places of spirited discussion, fueled not by a complicit both-siderism, but a commitment to the complexity of divisiveness in the United States.

Current Courses

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AFRS 1012 - Affirmative Action and United States History

What is affirmative action? What are its origins? How has it developed over time? Why does affirmative action arouse so much controversy? Why in 2022 did the Supreme Court declare affirmative action policies in higher education violated the Constitution? Affirmative action arguably no longer exists. Is this a positive development? Is this detrimental? Why? What is affirmative action’s legacy in American life? These are some the questions this seminar will explore. The readings have been selected to give seminar participants a broad study of the history of affirmative action in the United States. As a first-year writing seminar, this course focuses heavily on students’ writing. It mixes class discussion and debate with lecture. For a final project, students design and complete a research paper on the history and significance of a major affirmative action case argued before the Supreme Court of the United States; or on another topic of their choosing with the Professor’s approval.​​​​

(Photo: Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo)


AFRS 1101 - Intro to Africana Studies

What really is Africana Studies? In this course students will be introduced to the interdisciplinary world of Africana Studies, and delve into an exploration of African American and African diaspora themes in the context of the modern world. From the Atlantic slave trade and Haitian Revolution all the way to the streets of New York City in the 1970s, what happens when history and culture is presented through the centering of the African American and Africana diaspora experience? This course will do just that. Rich primary source work will highlight, chronologically and thematically, the accounts of African American, African diaspora, and African experiences. Students will explore the iconic works of thinkers across time: from the likes of W.E.B. DuBois and Harriet Jacobs to James Baldwin and Ma Rainey, ultimately using these many texts and sources to conceptualize a nuanced and historically grounded view of the field. ​

(Painting: Aaron Douglas, "Building More Stately Mansions")

Recently Taught

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AFRS 1320/HIST 1320/URBS 1320 - Racial and Ethnic Conflict in U.S. Cities

American cities have been historic cauldrons of racial and ethnic conflict. But what makes conflict and violence “racial?” What other issues work with race and ethnicity to produce social tension and physical violence in American cities and towns? What historical factors account for the ways racist violence changes over time? How did racism shape the history of American cities? This course concentrates on urban violence in American cities since 1863. Students study moments of conflict during the early republic and the nineteenth century. Topics examined include the post-Reconstruction pogroms that overturned interracial democracy; the Red Summer and its historical memory; the ways race and ethnicity shaped urban residential patterns; the effects of immigration on urban political economy and society, and the conflicts over space, labor, and social relations that arose; and the waves of urban violence that spread across the country in the mid-1960s. The course ends with readings and lectures about the Black Lives Matter movement and resurgence in urban violence and tension during the 21st century.

All Courses 

First Year Writing Seminar

  • Affirmative Action and U.S. History [Africana Studies]

  • America Dreams. The U.S. Past through History and Literature [History]


Introductory Level Lecture

  • Introduction to Africana Studies [Africana Studies]

  • Gotham: A History of New York City [History/Urban Studies]

  • Racial and Ethnic Conflict in American Cities [Africana/History/Urban Studies]

Intermediate Level Lecture

  • The U.S. to 1815: Continents, Nations, and Borderlands [History]

  • The U.S., 1815-1877: The West, and War [History]

  • The U.S., 1877-1945: Reconstruction and the World [History]

  • The U.S. Since 1945: Increased Power and Inequality, from Truman to Today [History]

  • Civil Rights and Black Power Movements and the Making of Modern America [Africana Studies/History]

  • From Ghetto to Gentrification: Inequality in US Metropolises [Africana Studies/History/Urban Studies]

Intermediate Level Seminar

  • Martin, Malcolm, and America [Africana Studies/History]

  • African Americans in New York City since 1626 [Africana Studies/Urban Studies]

  • “The Wire:” Race, Class, Gender and the American “Urban Crisis” [Africana Studies/Urban Studies]

  • “Mad Men” and Wonder Women: the US during the 1960s (2 semesters) [History/Gender, Sexuality, Women Studies]

  • Unmaking Ghettos: Development and Empowerment in American Cities [Africana Studies/Urban Studies]

  • Rise and Fall of the American Century: Key Debates in Post-1945 U.S. History [History]

  • Oral History: Methods and Practice [Africana Studies/History]

Advanced Level Seminar

  • Research in Modern U.S. Metropolitan History [Africana Studies/History/Urban Studies]

  • Researching and Writing US History, 1945-Present [History]

  • Blacks in US Cities [Africana/History/Urban Studies/History]

  • Researching and Writing Civil Rights and Black Power Movement History [Africana Studies/History]

  • Race, Crime, and the Law [Africana Studies]

  • Power and Politics in 20th C. U.S. Cities: Robert Caro’s The Power Broker [History/Urban Studies]

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