Black Lives Matter
I admit that I could have and for a time did skirt issues of racial justice in the courses that I taught. The reasoning came easily enough. First of all, I did not have to do so. I had been hired to teach survey courses on Islam. With so much content to cover, how could I possibly take the time to substantively engage questions of race and racism as well? Secondly, could I do so competently? I did not feel prepared to undertake the task. My training was in textual interpretation and the history of the pre-modern Muslim societies and not critical race theory or the racial dimensions of the fields in which I trained. Nevertheless, the convergence of contemporary currents--the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement especially--and my exposure to the pedagogical scholarship about teaching race and racism compelled me to reconsider my earlier circumspection of teaching racial justice. Through the work of numerous preceding scholars, I came to realize that the classroom was precisely the place where I could address the social injustices that I witnessed and with which I was structurally complicit. (Tatum, 1992; hooks, 1994; DiAngelo, 2011; Pliner & Banks, 2012; Case, 2013; Yancy & Davidson, 2014). With this concern in mind, I intentionally changed how I went about teaching my religious studies courses. The transition, of course, was not always easy. One effective way in which I was able to effect this change, however, was to rebuild a course thematically around #BlackLivesMatter, rather than merely adding it onto an already set syllabus. While work certainly remains with respect to content and expertise, my usage of naming helped to pivot the course along a more ethically attentive trajectory.
I identify in the act of naming, which #BlackLivesMatter exemplifies, an important and accessible device for pedagogical intervention. While it is all too easy to overlook, obfuscate, or circumvent discussions of race and white supremacy in the teaching of religion, the act of naming helps to center such turns. I argue that a sustained engagement with naming offers students multiple opportunities to better understand how religion relates to the systemic nature of racism and intersectional identities. As a scholar of religious studies, I had wanted students to appreciate how religion figures into the epistemic, social, and political matrices of human societies. Now I wanted them to appreciate as well how religion figures into the epistemic, social, and political matrices of white supremacy. The act of naming, as a form of "counter-signification," can be used to structure a course in such a way to efficaciously shape, redirect, or pivot the trajectory of a course towards under-examined intersections.
I am using the term "counter-signification" as formulated by two scholars of African American religions, Charles H. Long, whose work more broadly concerns the history of religions, and Richard Brent Turner, whose research concerns African American Muslims. For Long (1986), "signification" marks the ways by which a dominant group subjugates, denigrates, and/or marginalizes another group, while "counter-signification" represents the ways by which the non-dominant group works to resist and subvert that power dynamic (pp. 1-2). Building on Long's work, Richard Brent Turner (2003) uses counter-signification as the primary analytical lens in Islam in the African-American Experience, one of the main books that I assign in my Islam in America course. While I had long recognized the analytical weight of Long's theorization for religious studies, I came to realize through #BlackLivesMatter that it was transferable to the teaching of religious studies as well. I wanted to operationalize Long's disciplinary theory of signification and counter-signification for pedagogical purposes in the classroom.
For the purposes of the present article, the case study is my Islam in America course. Nonetheless, the technique of naming and the pedagogical structure that it provides could easily be used to address race and white supremacy for courses focusing on other religious traditions and identities. What I share herein are the class discussions and activities that I facilitate over the first few weeks of the term and then an overview of how the remainder of the course continues with the #BlackLivesMatter theme and "counter-signification" as the mode of inquiry. By the end of the article, I will explore how this case studied might be expanded or adapted in different ways.
With respect to my Islam in America course, I opens the class with #BlackLivesMatters for two reasons, one practical and one pedagogical. On the practical level, I want to connect the lived context of the students with #BlackLivesMatters and what it signifies. I teach at Fairfield University, a Jesuit institution, where the mission of the university, like many others, is driven by "a common commitment to truth and justice." Addressing the ongoing struggles of racial justice in the United States and beyond, I believe, helps to bring the university's mission to life for my students. On the pedagogical level, #BlackLivesMatter opens my course because these words are written across the board on the first day. The inscription of #BlackLivesMatter sets the tone for the rest of the term. Students become immediately aware that difficult discussions concerning race will direct the course, even if the subject of the course is Islam in America. The presentation of the phrase also serves as an accessible, if not instantly recognizable, form of naming. Whatever their understanding of #BlackLivesMatter, students have encountered these words before entering the classroom.
For the opening activity students are then given the opportunity to free write their responses to several specific questions I pose to them: When, where, and how do these words occur? What do these words mean to those who speak them? What do these words mean to the many who hear them? The precise wording is importance because of the distancing that the phrasing creates. I want students to be able to share the full range of views that they are encountering in the public discourse, including populist and oppositional views as well as personal ones and those held by friends and family. Rather than sublimating certain opinions, my aim is to critically engage whatever emerges. Then, after the students share in pairs or small groups, the entire class comes together to record on the board the class-wide discussion of the numerous possible responses to these questions.
The exercise has a number of objectives. On one level it serves to establish the history, context, and social reality behind these words. Although #BlackLivesMatter may have gained prominence across social media and activist spaces in 2013 in protest of the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin, the phrase continues to be signified today in public discourse (Taylor, 2016, pp. 150-151; Lebron, 2017, p. xi). #BlackLivesMatter remains profoundly resonant for those who signify them. Additionally, opening with #BlackLivesMatter reveals to students the power that lies behind naming as an act. In fact, naming does important work on multiple fronts. To name something like #BlackLivesMatter is to give it life, to secure its place in a social memory, and to draw attention to the broader underlying conditions that require addressing. The act shines a light on that which demands greater attention. Furthermore, it acknowledges the agency of the one doing the naming, whether it is an individual or a community. In the classroom, that can be empowering for students because it transforms the ongoing learning into a moment of resistance or as a restorative measure. It grants them agency in the classroom. Indeed, the fact that naming operates at multiple registers and means different things to those who employ is something that helps students to appreciate the ethical complexities that the course works to engage. Naming is a meaningful action, but that meaningfulness varies with context, community, and person.
In the case of #BlackLivesMatter, the phrase spotlights specific moments of trauma and tragedy in the murder of black men and women. It also names a recurring call to action, the need to gather, mobilize, and affect radical change. It names a movement, the trans-historical struggle with which innumerable men and women are continually engaged. It names racial injustices pandemic to the country, namely police brutality and the new Jim Crow. It names America's pervasive culture of white supremacy, white privilege, institutional racism, and what philosopher Charles W. Mills (1997) identifies as the racial contract that underlies it. #BlackLivesMatter, then, names at once these many different things and more.
As central as #BlackLivesMatter may be to my Islam in America course, I make it a point to emphasize that the act of naming that we are turning to extends beyond the specificities of the named phrase. Rather, #BlackLivesMatter is part of a broader phenomenon of ethically driven naming that the course will...