Why We Need the #CharlestonSyllabus Now

The opening session of the Charleston Syllabus Symposium chaired by Barbara Mccaskill and featuring the book’s editors Chad Williams, Kidada Williams, and Keisha N. Blain (Image Credit: Walter Biggins)

On Friday, Sept. 23rd, the University of Georgia Press hosted the Charleston Syllabus Symposium at the University of Georgia. The event brought together over two hundred UGA students and faculty to discuss the current state of race relations, racial violence and civil rights activism in the United States. My colleagues Chad Williams, Kidada E. Williams and I spoke about why we edited the Charleston Syllabus: Readings on Race, Racism, and Racial Violence and reflected on its relevancy during this moment in our nation’s history. This is the transcript of my remarks on the opening panel, entitled, “Why the Charleston syllabus?” Click here to view a storify of tweets from the event (created by the #CiteASista team).

My colleagues have already provided excellent overviews on the origins of the Charleston syllabus and have explained so well why we collaborated on this project from the hashtag to the book. I want to add just a few words about why the Charleston syllabus is so necessary in this moment—to reiterate some of the points that were already made and also to address the larger question of this session, “Why the Charleston syllabus?”

williamsblain_charlestonsyllabus_hpAs I prepared remarks for this morning’s session, I reflected back to June 15th of this year when I received an invitation to discuss the Charleston syllabus on a radio show. The invitation came just two days before the one-year anniversary of the Charleston massacre. It also came on the heels of another massacre—one that took place on June 12th at a gay nightclub in Orlando resulting in the deaths of 49 people and the wounding of 53 others. I was shaken by the news and thought about how these two events were so interconnected—not solely because of the timing of the events or even because the two were mass shootings. More significantly, the two events underscore a disturbing historical pattern of violence, terror, and hate directed towards people of color, the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized groups in the United States.

Now, several months later, we are here together to discuss the Charleston Syllabus following three nights of unrest in Charlotte, North Carolina after the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. We are here together to discuss the Charleston syllabus following the police shooting of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We are here together to discuss the Charleston syllabus following the police shooting of thirteen-year-old Tyree King whose autopsy report was released this week, revealing that he was shot several times in the back (an indication that he was running away from–and not to—police officers at the time he was killed).

All of these events are interconnected. The same violence, terror, and hate that led to the tragic deaths of nine black men and women in a Charleston church in June 2015 continue to plague our society today. The readings on the Charleston syllabus list and in the book span decades, revealing that violence, hate, and terror have always been a part of our society—right alongside the rhetoric of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What is life when one is denied liberty, and how can one pursue happiness in the face of unending violence, terror and hate? (Assuming one is alive to pursue it in the first place).

ctdesf7w8ae9vpmNo doubt black people have asked some version of these questions for centuries. In many ways, the texts included in the Charleston syllabus individually and collectively grapple with these concerns. They force us to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that the violence, terror and hate that guided one man’s actions on the ill-fated night of June 17, 2015 was not so strange after all. Painful? yes. Horrifying? yes. But, not new; not unique; not so strange after all. A quick survey of US history or even contemporary developments reinforces this point.

The Charleston shooting—like the many acts of violence, hate and terror that came before and after it—reminds us that there is so much work to be done. But, how can we do the work—and do it effectively—without an understanding of the past? How can we do the work—and do it well—if we don’t see how the events of the present are interconnected with those of the past?

With the #CharlestonSyllabus hashtag and reading list, we sought to provide other educators with the historical context needed to effectively discuss the shooting—as the larger issues of race, racism, and racial violence—in the classroom and beyond. We also desired that members of the general public would utilize the list (and the book) to come to a better understanding of the complexities of these core issues.

If the Charleston syllabus does anything, I hope it awakens us to the reality that our work is far from over. It was necessary in June 2015 in the wake of the Charleston massacre and it is still necessary now more than ever.

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Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain, a Guggenheim and Carnegie Fellow, is Professor of Africana Studies and History at Brown University. She is the author of several books—most recently of the National Book Critics Circle Award finalist Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America (Beacon Press, 2021) and Wake Up America: Black Women on the Future of Democracy (W.W. Norton, 2024). Follow her on Twitter @KeishaBlain.