The day after the shootings in Charleston, SC, where a gunman opened fire in the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and killed nine people during a Bible study, Keisha Blain found herself online looking for answers. Scrolling through Twitter, she came across a tweet posted by Chad Williams, chair of the African and Afro-American Studies Department at Brandeis University.
“You know what,” he wrote, “I just really need some of my white friends and colleagues to read some history books. That is all. #CharlestonSyllabus.”
At first Williams meant that hashtag — #CharlestonSyllabus — as more of a punchline. But it resonated with Blain, an incoming assistant professor at history at the University of Iowa who’d done similar projects for the African American Intellectual History Society. They started emailing, and very quickly an actual #CharlestonSyllabus was born. Suggestions of texts on issues like racial violence and the Confederate flag started pouring in.
“Within an hour, there was a moment when I was trying to copy and paste suggestions and I looked and saw something like 546 tweets,” Blain says. “I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m going to compile something of this volume.’”
The project continued to grow in popularity, generating some 10,000 tweets in the first day. Blain and Williams got help from a team of librarians from across the country, who helped pore through suggestions, sort them into categories, and tag them in WorldCat, the online resource that lets readers locate a book at their local library. The team worked quickly, knowing people wanting to talk about the roots of a crime like the Charleston shooting could benefit from a collection of primary sources and well-researched texts to inform their conversations.
“We can have a conversation about race—we should have a conversation about race—but we need to have an informed conversation about race,” Blain says.
The syllabus includes books organized on topics including slavery, South Carolina history, and racial violence. It also includes a selection of books for younger readers about topics including reconstruction, rebellion, and reform.
“I think teachers have an obligation to keep an eye on what’s happening out of the classroom because our students live in the world and so do we,” says Ileana Jiménez, an English teacher at New York’s Elisabeth Irwin High School who runs the website Feminist Teacher. She says it’s important to use texts like the ones highlighted in the #CharlestonSyllabus, many of which she uses already, to connect current events with broader topics like institutionalized violence against minority communities and the history of racism in the United States.
Jiménez says she’s using the #CharlestonSyllabus to look at how the materials can fit into her own syllabus and curriculum for courses she teaches on feminism and American literature. “It has to be a balance between bringing in texts in response to things that are happening but keeping them institutionalized within our curriculum,” she says.
These documents are important because they show a deep desire to not just become informed but to act, Jiménez notes. “When these things trend, it’s because people want to do something,” she says, “and teachers can be at the front lines of that.”
The #CharlestonSyllabus and the #FergusonSyllabus
The #CharlestonSyllabus was informed by a similar document, the #FergusonSyllabus, developed by Georgetown professor Marcia Chatelain. That document became particularly useful within colleges, schools, and libraries, where educators used it to introduce new narratives and perspectives to their students.
“I find it really gratifying that educators are using the #FergusonSyllabus in a number of ways beyond teaching the crisis—it has expanded their own knowledge base, communities are forming book clubs to assist in talking about difficult dialogue, and others are using the syllabus to dig deeper on research topics,” Chatelain says.
Even though the Charleston shootings occurred just as most students across the United States were finishing the school year, Chatelain notes that documents like this can be powerful tools in informing what’s taught in the future. “Summer vacation allows us more time and space to think through a whole host of issues, it’s great to have the documents and the community behind it to consult and educate ourselves,” she says.
Blain has been in touch with educators and librarians across the country about the #CharlestonSyllabus, many of whom say they’re planning to use it in future classes or to inform future purchases of books. Elliot Brandow, a history librarian and bibliographer at Boston College who helped put together the syllabus, has used it to feature books on issues like racial violence more prominently, including in the entrance to the campus’s main library.
“It’s clear that this effort is resonating and serving a real need in a time of such overwhelming anguish,” Brandow says. “I hope that it can be useful at Boston College, especially when the majority of the campus community returns in the fall.”
It’s particularly important for young students to read from a diverse set of texts, Blain says, because what they learn in school will play a major role in how they understand issues surrounding race for the rest of their lives. She’s seen this happen while teaching the history of topics including the Confederate flag.
“I would find the students wouldn’t necessarily know the details—they’d heard the same narrative repeated over and over again,” Blain says. “As a teacher, I would assign readings and I’d say, ‘Let’s talk about this next time after you’ve read the history.’ And students come in thinking about something like the Confederate flag in a different way.”
However, she adds, “It doesn’t mean everyone will agree. People may disagree with what they read, but the whole idea is that they’ve actually read and they have exposure to these rich, complex issues without just talking about something [they don’t know] much about.”
Matt Collette is a reporter and radio producer in New York City. He has reported for organizations including NPR, WNYC, and Slate. Follow him on Twitter: @matt_pc.
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