The campus was uncommonly quiet on November 25, 2014. The night before, the St. Louis County Prosecutor announced that a grand jury had chosen not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who had, three months prior, shot and killed Michael Brown. Upon arriving in my Research Methods in Africana Studies class that day, my students--all of them Black, many of them activists and leaders on campus, and all of them angry about the decision--were withdrawn. The ensuing discussion in that class, and in others, demonstrated that my students were, and still are, full of questions: How could the officer be allowed to walk away? How could this happen in 2014? Why does it continue to happen? What would happen next? And, most importantly, how did we get here? Over the next week, the country erupted into action. Marches, die-ins, and protests were an everyday occurrence both on and off university campuses. My students participated in local activism, shut down streets, and held consciousness-raising sessions. They were consumed. Yet, the question still loomed: How did we get here?
The last few weeks of that semester illustrated just how little my students understood about the conditions leading up to the founding of #BlackLivesMatter as a movement. In the following semester (Spring 2015), I taught Seminar in Africana Studies under the topic, "The New Racism: Racial Violence, Criminality and Blackness." The next year (Spring 2016), I taught the same course, this time with the theme, "The Black Radical Tradition: Activism and Resistance." Both of these courses allowed me to provide the socio-historical background with which to frame and undergird a discussion of modern-day Black activism as represented by the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Seminar in Africana Studies is offered once an academic year during the spring semester, and serves as the capstone course for Africana Studies majors. While there are some aspects of the course that are static, such as career preparedness, the overall course theme changes from year to year, depending on the interests of the instructor. I have been teaching this course since 2014 and, each time, have made an effort to ensure that the theme is timely and relevant to the current social and political climate. When teaching Seminar in Africana Studies, I have been able to delve into a number of topics in depth, which has aided me in exploring the social, historical, and cultural roots of what is now being dubbed the "new Civil Rights Movement" (Demby, 2014). I have found the approach outlined here most effective with my students, a population comprised primarily of working- and middle-class Black, white, and Latino students at a Northeastern liberal arts college.
Due to their different racial and economic backgrounds, the students have an interesting perspective on #BlackLivesMatter, which has informed my approach to teaching about the movement. In general, my students see themselves as very open, accepting, and free from the burdens of racism, much like others in their age group. However, class discussions illustrate that, like those of their parents and grandparents before them, their lives are steeped in stereotype and prejudice. Therefore, in many ways, the information in these courses is brand new to my students. Although some of them--primarily the Black and Latino students--have first-hand knowledge of the conditions informing #BlackLivesMatter, many of them do not. For those students, this movement came out of nowhere and can be viewed as baseless, causing confusion, anger, and, sometimes, intolerance. It is here, at the meeting of awareness and unawareness, where I find my pedagogical approach to this topic to be most beneficial, helping to bring about a deeper understanding of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
What I describe in this essay are my experiences with and approach to teaching about, #BlackLivesMatter in two seminar courses in 2015 and 2016. The students enrolled in these courses were juniors and seniors majoring in Africana Studies. (1) Although this course was specifically for Africana Studies majors, I have also applied the approach outlined here to a more general survey course, particularly in regard to informing discussions about social stratification, institutional racism, economics, and criminal justice. In the following sections, I will summarize my pedagogical approach, the courses' objectives, the topics covered in these courses, and, finally, provide some general reflections on the teaching experience.
Pedagogical Approach--Education for Liberation
As a scholar trained primarily in the discipline of Black/Africana Studies, I approach education as a fundamentally transformative process designed to encourage students to think critically about--and challenge--societal norms. Africana Studies' emergence in 1969 as a formal academic discipline is rooted in challenge. The student strikes at San Francisco State College (SFSC; now San Francisco State University) came about because the Black, Latino, Asian, and Native students did not see themselves or their communities represented in the university curriculum, pushing them to demand that a change be made (Biondi, 2014; Rogers, 2012). Of the major demands made by the Black Students Union at SFSC was the development of a fully funded, autonomous Black Studies Department. They argued, "at the present time, the so-called Black Studies courses are being taught from the established departments which also control the function of the courses. We, the Black Students at San Francisco State College, feel that it is detrimental to us as Black human beings to be controlled by racists, who have absolute powers over determining what we should learn" (SFSC Black Student Union, 1968). These students saw their demands for Black Studies as the logical counterbalance to the "white studies" programs characterizing the system of higher education (Pentony, 1969). Africana Studies arose out of a need for a decolonized education, which places marginalized identities and experiences at the center of inquiry and de-centers the dominant narrative (Samudzi, 2016). The goal of Black Studies is to help students to critically use the knowledge and information they gain in Black Studies courses to change the conditions of Black people around the world. This goal can be realized through knowledge production (research), transformation of consciousness (teaching), and motivated action (service) (Carroll, 2008).
When teaching, I place an emphasis on the transformation of students' consciousness in order to move them on to motivated action in their respective communities. First and foremost, I view education as a liberatory process, one that encourages students to think critically about their lives and the social, economic, and political systems that shape them in order to help them come to a greater understanding of the human experience. As such, in the classroom, I place an emphasis on dialogue as a part of learning (Friere, 2000). Through the use of dialogue in the classroom, students are pushed to think deeply about their lives as beings that experience multiple forms of intersecting privileges and oppressions (Collins, 2000; Crenshaw, 1989).
I do not think education is a neutral process. On the contrary, I believe that education and teaching are highly political and can have far-reaching effects on democracy, public policy, and social justice. As such, in the classroom, I allow students to share their experiences and realities through dialogue, and also require that of myself. A holistic, engaged pedagogy necessitates that as a teacher-student, I must allow my students to be vulnerable--and allow myself to be vulnerable with my students--in order to disrupt traditional power dynamics in the classroom (hooks, 1994). I encourage students to connect the lived experience to academic material through confessional narrative, in order to move the information from the abstract to the concrete. In creating a space for my students to share with one another, I also aim to create a space in which they can begin to humanize the experience of privilege and oppression. In doing so, my hope is that students reach a deeper understanding of themselves, each other, and the world they live in. My ultimate goal is that, through learning, students will take the next steps toward informed, direct action through service to community and increased political involvement that can bring about their own liberation.
When developing the first iteration of Seminar in Africana Studies, "The New Racism: Racial Violence, Criminality and Blackness" in Spring 2015,I focused on answering the students' most common question, "How did we get here?" My main objectives for this course were, in part, to develop an understanding of the historical legacy of racialized violence in America; to explore the connection between racial violence and racialized perceptions of criminality; to develop an understanding of how the criminal justice system functions as a racist structure within American society; and to identify how the "new racism" has manifested in relation to perceptions of criminality and in violence toward men and women of color. The full set of course objectives is provided in Appendix A, the course syllabus.
In order to meet those objectives, I placed an emphasis on taking a socio-historical approach to...