#CharlestonSyllabus and the Work of African American History

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Chad Williams, Brandeis University

This is a guest post by Chad Williams, Associate Professor of African and African-American studies at Brandeis University. He is the author of the award-winning book, Torchbearers of Democracy: American Soldiers in the World War I Era. In this post, he discusses the origins and significance of the #Charlestonsyllabus.

On the morning of June 18, I, like countless other African Americans across the country, awoke to a nightmare.  The previous night, nine black men and women had been slaughtered during an evening bible study service in Charleston, South Carolina’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

I read the initial reports in stunned disbelief.  They had been shot, without remorse, in the sanctuary of God.  Church pastor and South Carolina state senator Clementa Pinckney was among the dead.  Three men and six women, one 87 years old, gone.  Disbelief turned to profound sadness. The gunman sat with the bible study group for an hour before opening fire.  A five year old girl played dead to avoid being killed.  Another survivor described the terrorist and his chilling words as he methodically reloaded and then unloaded his weapon: “You are raping our women and taking over our country.” Sadness turned to rage.

As details of the carnage unfolded and information about the killer, a 22 year old committed white supremacist named Dylann Roof, became known, my mind shifted to the historical significance of what had taken place. I began to immediately situate Charleston in the long history of white racial terrorism inflicted upon black people from Reconstruction to the present, encompassing assassinations of black community leaders, lynching in name of defending white womanhood and attacks on African American churches. I also thought about the meaning of this tragedy in the era of America’s first black president, a time that has not coincidently been marked by the specter of black death at the hands of the state and white vigilantes alike.

The Charleston massacre, albeit in the worst imaginable way, opened a blood stained door to this country’s racial history.  Would people have the courage to walk through it?  Vapid calls for renewing the “conversation on race,” a soothing focus on black forgiveness and ill-informed discussions about the Confederate flag did nothing for my confidence.  Over the course of two days, it became painfully evident that the vast majority of people lacked the necessary historical awareness to engage in serious dialogue about Charleston, much less subject themselves to critical introspection.

In this moment of frustration, I recalled the #FergusonSyllabus, brilliantly initiated by Georgetown University Professor Marcia Chatelain in the aftermath of the Ferguson uprising. The crowd-sourced reading list quickly became a vital tool for educators throughout the world to learn about the myriad issues at the core of Ferguson and apply them to the classroom. Given the magnitude of what took place in Charleston, surely something comparable was being developed.  On the evening of June 19, I did a search for “#CharlestonSyllabus” and, to my surprise, found nothing.

Social media and the blogosphere have emerged as vibrant spaces for both the production and dissemination of knowledge about African American history and its relation to our contemporary racial environment.  Hoping to harness this power, I reached out to Wayne State University associate professor Kidada Williams, who actively uses Twitter to share stories about all things academia related, and University of Iowa assistant professor Keisha N. Blain, one of the leaders along with Christopher Cameron, associate professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS).  I broached my idea for a #CharlestonSyllabus, similar to the #FergusonSyllabus, to raise critical historical awareness about recent events and serve as a resource for educators and the general public more broadly.  We began tweeting out book titles and, within an hour, #CharlestonSyllabus was trending.

The thought of an academic resource devoted to the very serious matter of the Charleston massacre “trending” invites natural skepticism about the effectiveness of a #CharlestonSyllabus. Without question, the at times voyeuristic and ephemeral nature of hashtag education and activism should be rightfully critiqued. I suspect that some people have and will continue to use #CharlestonSyllabus as a way to feel connected to the allure of deep learning and transformative pedagogy without doing the hard work necessary for it to actually take place.

My own cynicism began to recede after witnessing the remarkable response to #CharlestonSyllabus. What quickly emerged in just two days was a diverse community of people from a variety of professions, with divergent levels of historical expertise, all sharing a desire to educate, learn and challenge the prevailing discourse about race stemming from the Charleston tragedy.  The creation and affirmation of community is especially important in moments of collective trauma. It is all too easy for radical voices, given the seemingly daily horrors inflicted upon black people, to feel like we are crying in the wilderness.  This isolation can be soul crushing and, as scholars, cause us to question our self-worth.  The gratitude expressed for the creation of #CharlestonSyllabus reminds us that our work matters and must always strive to reach a broad public.

But #CharlestonSyllabus was not merely imagined as a way to create a virtual community. This endeavor is a work of serious historical scholarship firmly rooted in the African American intellectual tradition.  The AAIHS is thus an ideal host for the #CharlestonSyllabus, as in short time the site has become an important space for committed, innovative engagement with all aspects of black thought and culture.  The extraordinary work of Keisha N. Blain and other colleagues in curating the #CharlestonSyllabus reflects the expertise of a new wave of scholars pushing the field of African American intellectual history in bold new directions.

Indeed, #CharlestonSyllabus is a testament to the generations of remarkable scholarship that the AAIHS and historians like myself owe our existence to.  At Brandeis University, I offer a regular course in African American intellectual history.  In discussing the syllabus with my students during our first class session, I make a point to emphasize the importance of canon formation in the development of any intellectual or literary tradition.1 The texts, novels, poems, films, songs and primary source documents selected for the #CharlestonSyllabus are foundational to the study of the black experience and the meaning of race in modern history.  While by no means exhaustive, the #CharlestonSyllabus offers a useful starting point for immersion into the richness of the black intellectual tradition.

The #CharlestonSyllabus reflects not only the creation of African American intellectual history but engagement in its practice as well.  The act of soliciting and organizing a crowd-sourced collection of resources carries on the work of black bibliophiles like Arturo Schomburg, Edward C. Williams, and John E. Bruce.2 If alive today, these forbearers would no doubt marshal all the creative tools at their disposal—including social media—to further institutionalize the canon of black studies and find ways to disseminate information to as broad an audience as possible.  The hashtag, if mobilized conscientiously, can function as a bibliographic marker and tool for historical literacy.  This approach is also inherently democratic, reaffirming an ethos of shared communal knowledge production that is at the core of the black intellectual tradition.  Anyone, regardless of training or credentials, can offer a suggested addition to the #CharlestonSyllabus, and anyone, irrespective of educational level or proficiency in African American studies, can have access to the list of resources.

One might argue that a #CharlestonSyllabus, given the fleeting nature of hashtag causes, is destined to be short lived, that when the focus shifts away from the Charleston shooting to the next tragedy inflicted upon black people, a new hashtag will trend and fill our short attention spans. I would disagree. The massacre in Charleston is a historic event, one that will not soon be forgotten. Just like other incidents of racial terrorism, the psychic and existential scars of Charleston will remain present for some time to come. As educators, when we teach about the history of racial violence, the history of the black church, the history of the Confederate flag, the history of the Obama presidency, or any number of other themes related to the centrality of race in American history, we will have to teach about Charleston.  How will we go about preparing for that enormous responsibility?  I hope that the #CharlestonSyllabus will help us in our work.

In the coming days, weeks and months, we will relive the horror and trauma of the Charleston shooting. Funerals will take place. Irrevocably shattered families will bury their loved ones. Tears of unspeakable grief will be shed. Politicians will posture about the Confederate flag, change the subject on gun control, and patronizingly laud black people for their ability to forgive. A trial will take place. Pundits and self-professed experts will subject us to more explanations of why Dylann Roof did what he did. The soul wrenching details of Roof’s actions will be made public for us to hear and see. We will be told that his execution is necessary for closure, knowing full well that when it comes to atrocities committed against African Americans, closure all too often means sweeping history under the rug.

These moments promise to test our moral strength and spiritual resolve.  But, as black people have done throughout time, we will find sources of mental and emotional sustenance.  The work of redeeming America and saving its soul will continue.  #CharlestonSyllabus, as community formation, as knowledge production, as intellectual practice, offers to aid us in our work and provide inspiration to press on.

  1. See Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “The Master’s Pieces: On Canon Formation and the African-American Tradition,” in Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars. Oxford University Press, 1993.
  2. On Arturo Schomburg see: Elinor Des Verney Sinnette, Arthur Arturo Schomburg: Black Bibliophile & Collector. Wayne State University Press, 1989. On Edward C. Williams see: E. J. Josey, Edward Christopher Williams: A Librarian’s Librarian. The Journal of Library History, 4(2) 1969. On John E. Bruce see: Ralph L. Crowder, John Edward Bruce: Politician, Journalist, and Self-Trained Historian of the African Diaspora. New York University Press, 2004.

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