Course Overview:

African-American novelist William Demby was born on December 25, 1922 in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Although he spent much of his life in Italy, his novels were focused on American experiences. In 1950 Demby published his first novel, Beetlecreek, which he situated in a 1940s-era African-American community in West Virginia. His novel pursues themes of race and personal identity, although instead of portraying white society’s injustices to blacks, as many other black writers did, Demby created a story about a reclusive outcast white man who is victimized by a nearby black community. The novel follows the intricate race relations between an elderly white man, a black teen involved in gangs, and an artist following his passions down a dark path.

This course will engage a “sociological approach” to Beetlecreek, using the story as a case study of American race relations in the Jim Crow South. This course will draw on the tools of sociological analysis to better understand: the social construction of race and race conflict theory; complicated personal identities, ambitions and schemas; the sociology of gossip, “virtue signaling” and deviance; and how sociologists understand ethnic enclaves and black community safe havens such as the black barbershop. In addition to the sociological analysis, a number of films on American race relations will be screened, to illuminate and personalize our questions about race relations in America prior to the 1965 Civil Rights Movement.

Films to be Screened:

Mississippi Burning

I Am Not Your Negro

Malcolm X

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom


Hidden Figures


If Beale Street Could Talk 

Do the Right Thing

American History X

Fruitvale Station

Just Mercy