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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


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. 

(Photo:  Aaron Douglass, "Building More Stately Mansions," 1944.


HIST 1321/URBS  1321 - Gotham: The History of a Modern City 

New York, New York – the city so nice, they named it twice. How did New York City become a global metropolis? What makes it a significant city in the United States? How did it develop over four hundred years, and how does the history of New York City reveal significant aspects of modern human civilization? In this course students will address these, and many other questions, as they explore New York City’s history from the time-period when Algonquian-speaking people hunted, fished, and farmed throughout the region, up to the present, when New York City stands as one of the premier metropolises in the world.  Integral to this course is an investigation into the omnipresent nickname for New York: Gotham. Its origin, born of medieval England folklore, evokes the mythical legacy of New York overtime, one that has become as much an alter ego of varying proportions as an actual reflection of the city at hand. Using "Gotham" as a framework, students will confront the many opposing narratives and realities that exist in New York's history. 

Recently Taught


AFRS 2240/HIST 2220 - Civil Rights and Black Power Movements in the Making of Modern America

In this seminar class, students examine the political activism, cultural expressions, and intellectual history that gave rise to a modern Black freedom movement and its impact on the broader American (and international) society. Through engaging in primary sources and secondary scholarship, the class studies the emergence of community organizing traditions in the Southern Black Belt as well as postwar Black activism in US cities; the role of the federal government in advancing civil rights legislation; the internationalism of African American activism; and the relationship between Black culture, aesthetics, and movement politics.

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/History]

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

Intermediate Level Seminar

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

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

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

Advanced Level Seminar

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

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

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