Go for Broke: #WallerCountySyllabus

As a result of events in Ferguson related to the death of Michael Brown, last summer Georgetown University history professor Marcia Chatelain created #FergusonSyllabus. She discussed this brilliant work in her August 2014 Atlantic essay, “How to Teach Kids About What’s Happening in Ferguson.” About her trending hashtag, list of resources, and intellectual innovation, Professor Chatelain stated in the November 2014 issue of Dissent, “The #FergusonSyllabus organized a disparate population of scholars and students into a virtual movement that used Ferguson to frame how struggle has shaped American history, infused great works of art and literature, and given voice to those most hurt by the failures of leadership, capitalism, and democracy.” At her website, Professor Chatelain hosts additional resources to further the discussion of #FergustonSyllabus.

On June 23, 2015, Chad Williams, a scholar of African American history at Brandeis University, had a similar response to the tragic murder of nine Black people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. With a nod to the efforts of Professor Chatelain’s #FergusonSyllabus, Professor Williams wrote about his experiences in devising #CharlestonSyllabus as a scholarly resource to make critical sense of the Charleston shootings in light of African American history. He brilliantly related the assembly of resources through hashtag syllabi in the long past of African American bibliographers, librarians, and archivists, maintaining that something like #CharlestonSyllabus simultaneously displayed and engaged in African American intellectual history. Along the same lines, recently historian Keisha Blain of the University of Iowa offered her insightful reflections on the synergies of crowdsourcing the #CharlestonSyllabus, and the potential for such a wide collection of resources to not only inform but also instigate intellectual, social, political, cultural, and ultimately structural change in society. I think the same observation on the forging of Black intellectual work is true for more recent crowdsourced efforts such as Professor Daina Ramey Berry’s creation of #BlkWomenSyllabus, as Jessica Marie Johnson wrote recently (also see Imani Brammer’s piece in Essence), as well as Professor Kaye Wise Whitehead’s development of #SayHerNameSyllabus (here too).

As I wrote in a previous blogpost here at AAIHS, “What is Happening in Waller County?: Sandra Bland and the Sister Comrades Who #sayhername,” I live close to Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU). I’ve spent time in the archives at PVAMU and am a former resident of Hempstead in Waller County. I know the campus and the county well. Once the news broke about Sandra Bland’s death, I quickly followed reports and developments in the story, and later joined vigils and actions on-site outside of Waller County Jail in support of organizing under hashtags such as #Sandystillspeaks and #WhatHappenedToSandraBland.

Sandra Bland
Photo by author. Artist: Jenna, @jmc5974

As I continued to contemplate the case of Sandra Bland in conjunction with prepping for fall classes, on the afternoon on August 11 as I put the finishing touches on “What’s Happening in Waller County?,” I recalled #FergusonSyllabus and #CharlestonSyllabus. That moment birthed the idea for #WallerCountySyllabus. I was excited in anticipation of learning more from friends and colleagues about Black history. Yet, in the same moment on that sweltering August day, a sobering thought gripped me: the need for more hashtag syllabi only weeks after Charleston speaks to the enduring insanity and profound tragedy of the anti-Black times in which we still live where the war on Black bodies and Black life rages.

When such dizzying realizations set in, I often look to the writings of James Baldwin for perspective. As usual, I was not disappointed. He began a 1963 essay “A Talk to Teachers,” a resource Professor Chatelain recommends in #FergusonSyllabus, with this observation:

Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time. Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that. We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced . . . from within. To any citizen of this country who figures [him/herself] as responsible—and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people—must be prepared to “go for broke.” Or to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending that this won’t happen.

Baldwin’s essay also assaulted the delusions and dangers of teaching a mythical history of the United States, and goes on to contemplate the purposes of a revolutionary education. “The obligation of anyone who thinks of [her/himself] as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it,” Baldwin observed, “no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.” He concluded: “[O]ne of the paradoxes of education [is] that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society. It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person.” Baldwin’s searing words captured the essence of the times in which he wrote. His thoughts about a “revolutionary situation” in a society “desperately menaced” also speak profoundly to our contemporary moment. They call us collectively to marshal intellectual resources for resistance and for change. In short, Baldwin’s talk to teachers asks us to “go for broke” because the times demand it.

In recognition of Marcia Chatelain’s pioneering efforts with #FergusonSyllabus, and standing on the digital shoulders of Chad Williams and Keisha Blain’s work on #CharlestonSyllabus, Daina Ramey Berry’s production of #BlkWomenSyllabus, and Kaye Wise Whitehead’s launch of #SayHerNameSyllabus—and confident in the hopes of benefitting from the collective wisdom out there about Black history and Black life—I announce, with my comrade curator Dr. Toniesha Taylor of Prairie View A&M University, the creation of #WallerCountySyllabus.

While the previously mentioned hashtag syllabi on Black history have offered a wealth of national and international resources, the specific case of Sandra Bland reminds us about the power and importance of local history. Therefore, in the spirit of Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard’s scholarship on civil rights “groundwork,” without losing the vitality of national and international Black history, we especially invite suggestions for resources on local, public, and oral history more generally as well as resources that provide insights into Black Texas culture, and Black women’s Texas history more specifically. In addition, since Sandra Bland’s arrest and apprehension occurred literally yards away from the entrance of PVAMU, we hope that #WallerCountySyllabus will also collect resources that allow us to think critically about the local spaces of HBCUs vis-a-vis police brutality and white supremacy (and Black higher education in general). With regard to the Christian clergy members who have spearheaded vigils and local activism (along with humanist and atheist allies), we envision #WallerCountySyllabus including resources on the intersection between religion and Black freedom movements. And we also hope to find more creative resources such as art, like the Sandra Bland signs by a Houston artist included in this post, or the Black Lives Matter-Ottawa graffiti mural of Sandra Bland (important work about which Greg Childs recently reminded us), and music, like Goldin’s “#SandySpeaks,” Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout,” and Tef Poe’s “Say Her Name.” Finally, another angle that might distinguish #WallerCountySyllabus from other hashtag syllabi is a focus on Black environmental history/environmental studies. Here, based on the recent work of Rubin Patterson’s Greening Africana Studies and Carolyn Finney’s Black Faces, White Spaces, we think about what the Waller County Sheriff’s decision to set up barricades and cut down an oak tree under which those holding vigil once sat means and symbolizes in terms of environmental spaces. We ask that you read the above suggestions as suggestions, and not limits, on what #WallerCountySyllabus will ultimately look like.

Sandra Bland
Photo by author. Artist: Jenna, @jmc5974

Please tweet using the hashtag #WallerCountySyllabus, plus the hashtags about Sandra Bland (#sandystillspeaks, #whathappenedtosandrabland, #sayhername, #sandyspeaks, #justiceforsandrabland) and Waller County (#wallercounty). To disseminate the resources further, and to cast the widest possible net for obtaining more resources for #WallerCountySyllabus, we also suggest using appropriate hashtags related to your specific discipline, and/or teaching hashtags specific to your discipline. When at all possible, please tweet book titles (or other resources) hyperlinked to the specific entry in WorldCat.

You may also email citations, references, and/or resources to me and to Dr. Toniesha Taylor, Associate Professor of Communication at Prairie View A&M University (@DrTonieshaT). As the list of resources develops, I’m also happy to announce that the AAIHS site will host #WallerCountySyllabus. I’ll periodically provide updates about the project here at the blog.

At the beginning of this fall semester, let’s collectively go for broke with #WallerCountySyllabus.

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Phillip Luke Sinitiere

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies. In 2018-19, he is a W. E. B. Du Bois Visiting Scholar at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. As a scholar of American religious history and African American Studies, his publications examine the American prosperity gospel, the history of evangelical Christianity, televangelism, African American religion, Black intellectual history, and the work of W. E. B. Du Bois. He has published several books, including Protest and Propaganda: W. E. B. Du Bois, The Crisis, and American History with Amy Helene Kirschke (University of Missouri Press, 2014); and Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity (New York University Press, 2015). At present, he is at work on several projects related to W. E. B. Du Bois, along with a short biography of James Baldwin for Rowman & Littlefield’s Library of African American Biography series.