#CharlestonSyllabus: An Interview with Chad Williams, Kidada E. Williams, and Keisha N. Blain

This interview originally appeared on Process, the blog of the Organization of American Historians, The Journal of American History, and The American Historian, dedicated to exploring the process of doing history and the multifaceted ways of engaging with the U.S. past. It has been reproduced here with permission.


Chad Williams is associate professor and chair of the African and Afro-American Studies Department at Brandeis University. He is the author of Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era. Twitter: @Dr_ChadWilliams. Kidada E. Williams is associate professor of history at Wayne State University and the author of They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War One. Twitter: @KidadaEWilliams. Keisha N. Blain is an assistant professor of history at the University of Iowa. She received the 2014 Huggins Quarles Award and honorable mention for the 2015 Lerner-Scott Prize from the OAH. Twitter: @KeishaBlain

Could you briefly describe your book and how you created it?

Keisha N. Blain: The Charleston Syllabus book is a collection of secondary and primary sources on race, racism, and racial violence in the United States and abroad. The book is an outgrowth of the popular #CharlestonSyllabus Twitter hashtag and subsequent online reading list that we created in the days following the Charleston Massacre in June 2015. The original reading list is very extensive with hundreds of reading recommendations and resources—reflecting the depth and breadth of the scholarship and resources on race, racism, and racial violence. At the same time, the length of the reading list can be intimidating for someone coming to these topics for the very first time. The Charleston Syllabus book rectifies this problem, highlighting 66 core readings—many of which appear on the original reading list. In this collection, readers will find a wealth of resources—including scholarly essays, song lyrics, poems, and op-eds—addressing a variety of key topics in U.S. and global history such as slavery, religion, and racial identity.

Why did you choose the sources you included in your book?

Keisha N. Blain: We carefully selected what we believe are some of the best and most accessible works in the field of African American and African Diaspora History. As we finalized the pieces for the collection, we wanted to ensure that we would have a variety of texts, representing various academic fields, highlighting the richness and complexity of the black experience from the era of slavery to the present. In addition, we arranged the readings by core themes and topics and provided introductions for the general reader to better understand the significance of the pieces included in the book. Whereas the #CharlestonSyllabus was a reading list, the book takes the next step in order to provide more context and explanation for readers. As we explain in the book’s introduction, we also envisioned the book as a response to some of the critiques that the #CharlestonSyllabus was not a “syllabus” in the true sense of the word. Certainly, educators who use the book will need to craft their own syllabi depending on the topic/theme of the course they are teaching but the Charleston Syllabus book is all the more useful because it provides a road map for those who are unfamiliar with the history. Like the hashtag, the Charleston Syllabus book is geared towards members of the general public so we were careful to select the core texts that would be accessible to anyone regardless of educational background. In addition, a significant number of the texts in the book (like the reading list) are specifically about Charleston and South Carolina.

How can educators at all levels better teach black history? In what ways might we reach out to and educate those who have already left schools and universities?

Kidada E. Williams: Present and future educators need only to commit to ensuring the courses they teach engage black history and research resources often produced by top educational institutions. From the Library of Congress to local museums, institutions across the country are committed to revealing the complexities of U.S. history. As part of their missions, these institutions produce free, well-researched, open-access materials for history educators at all levels that are inclusive of African American history. Educators simply need to make a scholarly and civic commitment to accessing and incorporating African American history into their teaching. For #CharlestonSyllabus, educators came together across various levels to form an intellectual community committed to addressing deficiencies in some Americans’ historical educations. As history professors, we would be well served by committing to developing more opportunities for communal teaching and learning.

williamsblain_charlestonsyllabus_hpHow might you teach a class using this book?

Chad Williams: One of the impulses behind the creation of the #CharlestonSyllabus hashtag and reading list was to provide educators with the historical context to effectively understand and discuss the shooting when school resumed in the Fall. In developing the book, our goal was to reproduce as many key readings as possible and organize them in such a way so that they would be both accessible and transferable to the classroom. The book would obviously be ideal for a class devoted specifically to the Charleston shooting.  However, we envision teachers using the shooting as a lens to explore the full range of issues related to the histories of race, racism and racial violence in the United States. Indeed, the book is structured in such a way to give educators the freedom to reimagine how they teach American history and what it would mean to place the history of racial terror at the center of their pedagogy. That may entail using the entire book, certain sections, or just specific readings.

How can understanding and grappling with history help us to reckon with tragedies such as the Charleston attack?

Kidada E. Williams: The frustrations that led to #CharlestonSyllabus and (Marcia Chatelain’s #FergusonSyllabus before it) were the media and larger public’s lack of historical context for Dylann Roof’s actions and affinity for the Confederate cause or African Americans’ and their allies’ distressed reactions to it. U.S. historians and our students knew the sordid history of anti-black grievance behind Roof’s hate and his decision to strike at Emanuel A.M.E. This is why so many of us rushed to add our voices to conversations about the tragedy. Understanding the history of Africans’ violent subjugation under chattel slavery and its many afterlives puts actions like Roof’s in a new, unfiltered light. Knowing this history does not make grappling with the emotional toll of racial atrocities such as this any easier. But historical insight might empower us to advocate for the kinds of societal changes that might eliminate or reduce these kinds of tragedies.

What do you hope the book accomplishes?

Chad Williams: We are living in a moment where images and videos of racist killings of black people, whether by a white supremacist like Dylann Roof or by the police, have become a part of our everyday culture. There is an urgent need to understand the historical roots of why this is happening. Historians have an important role to play in educating the public and finding ways to transfer our knowledge beyond the academy. As scholars of African American and African Diaspora history, we certainly root ourselves and our work in a long tradition that links public engagement with struggles for racial justice and enlightenment. Social media has been extremely useful in this regard.  Over the past year historians have developed a number of hashtag crowd-sourced syllabi on a range of different subjects. We hope that our book can serve as an example of how to make these efforts even more dynamic and accessible to multiple audiences.

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