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The Charleston Syllabus

By Peter Greene — June 24, 2015 3 min read
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Sometimes, the internet astounds me with its power. Every day there’s another answer to the question, “Can the internet come up with something more useful than collections of pancake art?” In the wake of a truly terrible act of racism, the internet has birthed a powerful community and an invaluable resource.

Chad Williams is the chair of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University. He’s a published expert on African American military history (particularly in World War I). And on the morning of June 18, he was one more American facing one more eruption of racist-fueled violence and shocking murder.

He was looking for intelligent discussion; he was not finding it.

The Charleston massacre, albeit in the worst imaginable way, opened a blood stained door to this country’s racial history. Would people have the courage to walk through it? Vapid calls for renewing the “conversation on race,” a soothing focus on black forgiveness and ill-informed discussions about the Confederate flag did nothing for my confidence. Over the course of two days, it became painfully evident that the vast majority of people lacked the necessary historical awareness to engage in serious dialogue about Charleston, much less subject themselves to critical introspection.

Williams remembered the #FergussonSyllabus launched by Marcia Chatelain of Georgetown, and watched for a similar initiative to emerge for Charleston. It didn’t, so he recruited other African American Intellectual History Society members to begin the conversation on twitter.

You can read more about the development of #CharlestonSyllabus here. It’s an amazing example of how social media can facilitate a powerful and important dialogue. As Williams tells it

What quickly emerged in just two days was a diverse community of people from a variety of professions, with divergent levels of historical expertise, all sharing a desire to educate, learn and challenge the prevailing discourse about race stemming from the Charleston tragedy.

What also emerged was a resource list, an impressively crowd-sourced collection of materials to help inform discussion of the racist terrorism of June 17 in Charleston, but perhaps more importantly, of race, racism, and racial violence in America as a whole. In discussions of these issues (heck, in discussion of pretty much all issues), Americans often leap forward with limited or absent understanding of history and context. This list can help fill that gap.

Some of us, through circumstances of birth, geography, or just not paying attention, have not engaged in these dialogues about race in America very much over the past few decades. Well, history has caught up with us, and we can no longer pretend to have the luxury of sitting out the discussion. But it is not necessary for us to freak out.

Imagine that you’ve been assigned to teach classes that involve material you haven’t really studied in years-- say, you’ve been teaching American Lit, but next fall you’ll be doing the Shakespeare course.

What do you do? Well, you don’t go over to the Shakespeare teacher and say, “Could you just lay this all out for me and tell me what to do, since you’re the expert?” It’s not her job to educate you. No, you do what your academic training taught you to do-- you go find the source materials and you do your homework.

So the Charleston Syllabus reading list has arrived in a timely manner. Yes, by fall, most of my students will have completely forgotten about the horrific murders in Charleston. But those events are just one more in a sad series of reminders that America’s racial issues are not a sleeping dog that we can try to let lie. The dialogue is going to happen-- it has to happen-- and it will be most useful if participants have some knowledge of the history and context of the issues. That goes double for those of us who teach, and perhaps triple for those of us who teach in mostly-white schools. This is the world in which our students are growing up; we have to be able to talk to them about it, to help them better make sense of it.

The Charleston Syllabus has secured its own web address, with a fully developed website to follow. Let’s hope that this becomes a valued resource for the nation, proof that the internet can help build community in ways that elevate us as a culture.

The opinions expressed in View From the Cheap Seats are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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