September 23, 2016
The Black Lives Matter Syllabus
by Ian Dreiblatt
“I’m going to show you. I’m going to make you all proud.”
Those are the words Terence Crutcher texted his twin sister Tiffany a few weeks ago about his recent enrollment at a community college in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Instead, Crutcher, forty years old and a churchgoing father of four, died last week, shot by Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby while on his way home from class. He was unarmed.
Crutcher’s story is devastating, even intolerable. It’s also a very small drop in a very deep bucket. This, alas, is not news.
In his 2007 book The Fire This Time, Randall Kenan writes:
Racism is the handmaiden of race, but it proceeds from a different impulse, a different set of fairy tales. Whereas race is the definition of the Other (“You are different from me in some fundamental way”), racism is the narrative(s) woven around that assertion. Each growing on each, creating, in the mind of the teller and in the ear of the hearer and the reteller, a vision of Self based on the differentiation of the despised Other (“We do not do as they do”) — and the Other is always hated for their differences, for not being Us, for having the gall to be alien, and therefore a threat. Threats exist to be feared. Hence what began as an excuse (“We can enslave them, for they are different from us”) evolves, and right before the teller’s eyes what was once a man transforms into a beast, as in the American South around the turn of the nineteenth century. After a series of rebellions and riots when black folk let it be known that they were not interested in remaining slaves, they became in the eyes of their masters beasts, dim-witted, childlike creatures, at once sexually rapacious and lazy; a good cook, but in desperate need of Jesus; a creature to be feared.
Kenan’s words seem uncannily to predict the testimony of police officer Darren Wilson about Michael Brown, the eighteen-year-old black man he fatally shot in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014: “The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon.” Wilson also said that his physical altercation with Brown made him feel “like a five-year-old holding on to Hulk Hogan” (Brown was one inch taller than him), and that, after he had opened fire, Brown—in the middle of being fatally shot—looked “like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him.” A creature to be feared indeed.
How do we unmake this terrible reality, unweave the unconscionable racial narratives that comprise so much of America’s fabric?
That question lies at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has increasingly stewarded a vital conversation about racial justice in America. While it has met with some criticism—from harangues about pulling up their pants to the Harriet Tubman Collective’s more salient critique that BLM fails to express direly-needed solidarity with disabled people—the movement has nonetheless found itself at the forefront of the struggle whose rallying cry it has taken as a name.
Now, activist, organizer, and NYU professor Frank Leon Roberts has made a serious contribution to conversations in and around that struggle with his Black Lives Matter Syllabus, a list of recommended reading, viewing, listening, and other resources whose relevance extends far beyond the course he teaches at NYU’s Gallatin School. Roberts writes in the syllabus that his class “links the #blacklivesmatter movement to four broader phenomena: 1) the rise of the U.S. prison industrial complex and its relationship to the increasing militarization of inner city communities 2) the role of the media industry in influencing national conversations about race and racism and 3) the state of racial justice activism in the context of a neoliberal Obama Presidency and 4) the increasingly populist nature of decentralized protest movements in the contemporary United States.”
Particularly considering recent news that the publishing industry is blindingly white and doing little to change it, right now seems an apt moment to sit down, have a glass of water, and consider how those “national conversations about race and racism” are going. This might mean all sorts of things, including (and by no means limited to) contemplating the books being produced by #BLM leaders, the role that books about black American life might play in courtrooms, the challenges of writing conscientiously about #BLM issues for children, and the effects of police shootings on book sales, along with revisiting old and recent public discussions by writers about race in America.
For as long as they’ve existed, books have been trusted as both vessels of historical subjectivity and laboratories through which to re-imagine it. Today, when America is bleeding, books matter, and what we do with them matters, in part because black lives do. Literacy is a technology for unbeasting the Other, for revealing the human commonality that underlies sometimes conflicting interests. Right now may be a good moment to get out in the streets, but it’s also a time to take up and read. With this syllabus, Roberts has gestured toward a habitable coherence at the heart of the history we’re living, a different fabric waiting to be spun. It certainly doesn’t solve our problems — but offers a way to start.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.