Not Just Another Hashtag: Reflections on the #Charlestonsyllabus

It’s not about another hashtag but it’s about a recognition that as educators, we have the ability–and certainly the platform–to initiate meaningful change in this crucial historical moment. (K. Blain)

Display at Lipscomb University’s Beaman Library (courtesy of Elizabeth Heffington)
Display at Lipscomb University’s Beaman Library
(courtesy of Elizabeth Heffington)

Over the past several weeks, I have been working closely with fellow historians Chad Williams and Kidada Williams; and a group of talented librarians (Cecily Walker, Ryan P. Randall, and Melissa Morrone) on the #Charlestonsyllabus. In the aftermath of the horrendous shooting that unfolded in Charleston, South Carolina, Chad Williams turned to Twitter to express his frustrations about the continued distortions of history that dominated mass media. Indeed, these same distorted versions of history have often dominated public discourse—i.e. suggestions that somehow the Confederate flag the shooter displayed on his clothing had nothing to do with white supremacy; or somehow the shooter’s actions were so exceptional as to imply that it was not part of a long and painful history of anti-black racism and racial violence in the US and abroad.

When Chad Williams called for a #Charlestonsylalbus, he was appealing to educators across the nation to do something. In this moment of pain and disbelief, we must grieve the senseless killing of Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Myra Thompson and Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. We cannot allow their deaths to be in vain. What would it mean to finally have a national conversation about race— the one we’ve been talking about having for decades? And what would it take to have informed conversations about race–the kinds of conversations where those who chose to dominate the discussion have some knowledge of the history? These are the kinds of questions that went through my mind in June when I quickly jumped on board to help move the #Charlestonsyllabus from being “just another hashtag” to a movement that would make a difference in some small and meaningful way.

Charleston Emanuel AME Church Shooting Victims
Charleston Emanuel AME Church Shooting Victims (Cynthia Hurd, Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Daniel Simmons, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Susie Jackson, and Ethel Lance)

As a professional historian, I understand the importance of documentation. I knew that it would be vital to create an actual list that people would be able to access long after the hashtag stopped trending. With the help of Cecily, Ryan, and Melissa, I was able to finish the list in a timely fashion and we now have an easily accessible list available for anyone with a computer. By linking the resources to Worldcat, we’ve made it much easier for anyone to locate one of the many excellent articles and books on the list. Thanks to the quick thinking of Elliot Brandow, a librarian at Boston College, all the books on the list are tagged on Worldcat—making it easy for scholars and members of the general public to scroll through the selections and determine which ones are available at their local libraries.

The response to the #Charlestonsyllabus has been astonishing. What went from an effort to compile a list of readings on race and racial violence in the US quickly evolved into something much more. Within 24 hours, the hashtag began trending on Twitter and by mid-week, over 10,000 tweets had been posted under the hashtag. In only a matter of days, the #Charlestonsyllabus essentially went from one tweet to a major library resource. To date, more than 115, 000 unique visitors have accessed the list. Several libraries across the country—including those at Boston College, Lipscomb University, Florida State University, Brandeis University, and Payne Theological Seminary— have featured #Charlestonsyllabus displays. Since its debut, the #Charlestonsyllabus has been featured on major news outlets including BBC, PBS, NPR, LA Times, New York Times, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Religious leaders across the nation are distributing the #Charlestonsyllabus reading list to encourage parishioners to learn more about the history of race relations. For example, Rev. Matthew Tingler, the pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church in New Hampshire, not only created a webpage on his website to encourage church members to consult the list but also collaborated with the church librarian to create a display of some of the books. Similarly, Rev. Lee Hull Moses, the pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in North Carolina, appealed to her members to use the #Charlestonsyllabus. “Don’t let the length of the list overwhelm you,” she cautioned, “Pick one and start there.”

The #Charlestonsyllabus was not the first hashtag created in response to recent developments. As blogger Jessica Johnson pointed out in an earlier AAIHS post, initiatives such as #BlackLivesMatter, #Fergusonsyllabus, and #SayHerName have been crucial for addressing key issues affecting members of the black community. Within the last few years, Twitter has become the central public meeting space for black scholars and members of the general public alike to openly condemn racism and all forms of discrimination; and to galvanize black men and women across the globe. In so many ways, the #Charlestonsyllabus is a testament to the power of Twitter as a central medium for educators to engage and strategize with members of the general public. What the #Charlestonsyllabus has done is bring together people from all walks of life who are deeply committed to social justice and determined to make a difference.

Display at Boston College’s O'Neill Library (courtesy of Elliot Brandow)
Display at Boston College’s O’Neill Library
(courtesy of Elliot Brandow)

While many are fascinated by the #Charlestonsyllabus because of its widespread appeal and overnight success, the most significant impact of the syllabus are in the stories that have unfolded behind the scenes. It’s the story about how I pulled the bulk of the works in the nonfiction section from a plethora of Tweets from Jack Heller, a passionate educator at Huntington University who teaches English courses at Indiana’s Pendleton Correctional Facility. It’s the story of how Phillip Overeem, a retired teacher from Colombia, MO (and walking encyclopedia of all things music), helped me compile the music section of the #Charlestonsyllabus. It’s the story about Jane Butler, a retired educator from Milford, Pennsylvania who not only tweeted a ton of links to multimedia sources for the #Charlestonsyllabus but took the time to send me personal messages to encourage me along the way. “[I am] deeply grieved by [the] state of the nation, “she wrote in one Twitter message, “[but] hope lies with your efforts.”

Violetta Curry, a black woman residing in Spain, felt a sense of hope in the #Charlestonsyllabus too. Originally from Philadelphia, Curry relocated to Spain in 1987 where she has led a successful career singing Jazz. Our paths crossed, online at least, when she emailed me to suggest that I add a book to the list. I quickly responded that I would consider it—her request was one of hundreds of requests coming in at the time. She followed up days later to ask me to suggest programs in Black Studies because the #Charlestonsyllabus had reignited her desire to return to school. I quickly responded to encourage her decision and we have been in touch ever since. As Curry explained in a recent email, “the Charleston syllabus…has just made it all so much clearer and desirable.”

These stories provide just a few examples of the fascinating stories that have emerged from the #Charlestonsyllabus. They underscore how the #Charlestonsyllabus has impacted the lives of so many people all over the globe. In the aftermath of the senseless Charleston shooting, the #Charlestonsyllabus brought hope to Jane, Violetta and so many others—hope that change is possible; and hope that as a nation we are (finally) ready to broach the conversation on race and racism. If the #Charlestonsyllabus has provided an opening for a national and international conversation on race and racism, then I certainly hope it will continue to keep the conversation going.


Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain is the Senior Editor of Black Perspectives. She is a historian of the 20th century United States with broad interdisciplinary interests and specializations in African American History, the modern African Diaspora, and Women’s and Gender Studies. Her first book, Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (University of Pennsylvania Press), will be published in Spring 2018. Follow her on Twitter @KeishaBlain.

Comments on “Not Just Another Hashtag: Reflections on the #Charlestonsyllabus

  • It’s about time that we admit the continuing poison of racism and its sickening effects on American society. We, as a nation must transform the nature of our discourse on race relations, admit its lingering undertones and overtones of white supremacy (witness Trump and his categorization of Hispanics who migrate here and are striving to improve their lives as thieves and criminals, epithets which in the past were used to describe Italian Irish and other immigrants) and use our institutions of learning and spiritual development to root it out.This curriculum gives a much-needed tool for educators and our religious to address and, God willing,to leech out the poison of racism from the body politic of the United States.If we still need evidence of racism’s hold on the minds and souls of numbers of white Americans, just turn to Trump’s supporters and what they say about his candor about saying what they are feeling and ‘afraid to say’. Ponder for yourself exactly what his supporters are feeling and not saying.

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