Purple Reign: Exploring Prince’s Impact on Race and Masculinity

The January Interim Experience course allowed students to dive into issues of race, masculinity, and power through Prince's life and work.
Posted on February 13th, 2019 by

Professor Misti Harper (third from left) leads class discussion.

Gustavus Adolphus College junior Teanna Britton missed the first few days of her January Interim Experience Class, Prince and the Sexual Revolution: Race, Masculinity, and Purple Reign, but the absence was excused because she had a pretty good excuse. Britton, a junior management major from Big Lake, Minn., was on a Prince-themed charity cruise.

While the rest of the students began the intensive, four-week course with a unit on Prince and Race, Britton was attending lectures by some of Prince’s closest colleagues, including producer Chris Moon, hairstylist and confidant Kim Berry, manager Owen Husney, and Matt Fink, who played keyboard for Prince from 1979-1991.

“I grew up with Prince’s music and it was rewarding to be with so many other fans to celebrate him as a trailblazer,” Britton said. After returning to campus, she gave a presentation about the cruise to her fellow students, sharing anecdotes from the lecturers and the almost fanatic passion of fellow attendees.

For history professor Misti Harper, the life and work of Prince Rogers Nelson provided the perfect grounding for tough discussions about sexuality, race, and power. “Given that I study women’s and gender history, and Black history, Prince offered me a wonderful chance to use the ultimate pop culture icon who was also a social and cultural chameleon to investigate issues such as gender fluidity, racial equality, and what masculinity can mean,” she explained.

Students examined Prince’s wardrobe for a discussion on masculinity and gender norms.

The course’s content was broken into weeklong units, continuing from race to masculinity, sex, and Prince’s legacy, which the syllabus referred to as “Purple Reign.” “I have been fortunate enough to teach in a moment where students are quite cognizant of their own political landscape, and they want to talk about such issues,” Harper said, “beyond the fun it was to study Prince Rogers Nelson.”

Daily class sessions included readings, viewing and deconstructing music videos and lyrics, studying media appearances and contemporary commentaries on Prince, and in-depth conversation among students.

“My students’ passion for looking at Prince in these ways was by far the biggest treat to me as a history professor, especially as most of them did not come to this course with any kind of grounding in gender history or Black history,” Harper explained. “By the end of the course, I had young women referencing W.E.B DuBois’ ‘double consciousness’ theory while they talked about the film Purple Rain, and discussing Prince’s feminine alter ego when they dissected his on-stage wardrobe.”

On the last day of the class, students toured Paisley Park, Prince’s private estate and production complex, and posed for a photo that was posted on Twitter by museum staff. Responses to the class poured in from across the globe from the Prince faithful. “This is everything @gustavus,” one user wrote. “How can I like this a million times?” added another.

“Of course, as most of my students are native Minnesotans, it was incredibly charming to see how much they grew to love Prince because he loved this state and its people so much,” Harper said.

For Britton, the class was an opportunity to share her love for the music icon with her fellow students, but also a chance to learn more about his trailblazing legacy of confronting stereotypes in masculinity, race, and power.

“Prince was controversial in many ways, but he opened so many doors,” she said.


Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication Luc Hatlestad



  1. Gregory Kaster says:

    What a terrific course, Prof. Harper! Congratulations! Wish I could have taken it.

  2. Jack Little says:

    This is so cool. Proud to be a Gustie.