Teaching “Black Lives Matter” at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
In Fall 2015 I taught an undergraduate course titled “Black Lives Matter: Human Rights Perspectives” in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of African American Studies. Cross-listed in Anthropology, the course was framed in terms of the systemic violation of African Americans’ and other African descendants’ human rights and the struggles for rights and dignity, particularly in contexts of racism, antiracism and their intersections with other oppressions, such as those related to gender, sexuality, and class. The course aimed to examine racial profiling, repressive policing, vigilante (in)justice (e.g., lynching, George Zimmerman-style neighborhood watch patrols), mass incarceration, felony disenfranchisement, and the forms of collective sociopolitical action that have arisen to resist, redress, and remedy anti-black racism in its most repressive and lethal expressions. The course sought to situate these interrelated problems–which contribute to the devaluation and dehumanization of Black lives–both historically and transnationally, framing them in terms of parallel and, at times, convergent experiences within the African Diaspora.
Although we discussed some of the specific workings of #BlackLivesMatter, our principal focus was on the wider complex of historical and contemporary issues that a diversity of social and political actors has engaged in different spaces on the uneven landscape of the Black Freedom Struggle.
The course examined the structural conditions and the cumulative sociopolitical histories and legacies that made possible the formation of the current Black Lives Matter network of activists, protests, and campaigns that is deploying hashtag and social media communication tools in movement building. Although we discussed some of the specific workings of #BlackLivesMatter, our principal focus was on the wider complex of historical and contemporary issues that a diversity of social and political actors has engaged in different spaces on the uneven landscape of the Black Freedom Struggle.
I wanted my students to understand that though #BlackLivesMatter was in some ways unique in advancing the struggle to a new level, the problems it addresses had not been neglected by earlier generations of activists and socially responsible intellectuals. Violence against Black youth was something about which the activist poet Langston Hughes wrote in his 1938 “Kids Who Die” (see syllabus, page 4). The Black Panther Party confronted police brutality through its tactics of self-defense. Derrick Bell, a visionary in critical race theory, tackled police brutality, as did the other contributors to journalist Jill Nelson’s 2000 Police Brutality: An Anthology.
For me, offering the course was the logical outcome of my having attempted to address anti-black racial profiling and extrajudicial killings over a two-year period, beginning in the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s vigilante killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida on February 26, 2012. At that time, I worked at the University of Florida and found myself with many of my African American Studies and Anthropology students struggling to make sense of what had happened, how the tragedy fit into a larger pattern of state-sanctioned anti-black violence, and what could be done to redress that unjust pattern of human rights abuse. Two students who were enrolled in my classes at that time became active in the Dream Defenders, so active, in fact, that their political work became a more urgent priority than completing course requirements. My colleagues and I in the African American Studies Program did what we could to work with those students to help them find ways to balance their public engagement with the immediate demands of their education. We wanted to impress upon them how African American Studies could offer them nuanced understandings of the Black Freedom Struggle as it’s unfolded over time and across the cultural and national boundaries that constitute experiences within the wider African Diaspora, of which Black America/USA is a part.
In Spring 2013, UF’s Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations in the Levin College of Law sponsored an interdisciplinary symposium on the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case. The papers are available in the UF Law Scholarship Repository, a free access site and public service. I was among the UF faculty and graduate students who presented papers (see link to my paper, “Racial Profiling, Security, and Human Rights,” on the syllabus, page seven). The symposium took place before the court verdict, which wasn’t reached until July. Right after we found out that Zimmerman was acquitted, I felt compelled to write a post—“Who Has the Right to Self-Defense and Life in So-Called ‘Post-Racial’ Society?”—for the AAA blog (see syllabus, page 6). Months after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, after the December 5, 2014 mass die-in was staged at the AAA meeting in Washington, D.C., I wrote a post for the Savage Minds blog, “Reflections on the AAA Die-in as a Symbolic Space of Social Death” (see link on syllabus, page 6, in section on anthropological engagements of issues of Black life and death).
#BlackLivesMatter was founded after Zimmerman’s acquittal. By the time Michael Brown was killed in August 2014, Black Lives Matter had become a nationwide rallying cry. In October of that year, I gave a public lecture at St. Louis Community College, where the women’s history month lecture I’d been invited to deliver in March had been cancelled because of bad winter weather. I agreed to return in the Fall. The topic of my lecture in October, however, changed to a critical race feminist perspective on Ferguson’s transnational implications. The faculty who invited me to St. Louis asked me to address Ferguson in my talk. I agreed and welcomed the chance to situate the many Michael Browns and their female and trans counterparts within broader historical and transnational contexts. The structural vulnerability of Black bodies to violent forms of social control–law and order– performed by both police officers and civilians, dates back to the era of slave controls and can be found not only in the United States but also in other parts of the Black World. I was especially keen on informing the audience of what’s been happening in other parts of the African diaspora, such as Colombia and particularly Brazil, where a roughly parallel movement (Reaja ou Será Morto/React or Die) has emerged to combat racist policing and what is being characterized as anti-black genocide there. Preparations for international sports events like the World Cup and Olympics added fuel to the already burning fire of antiblack displacement and violence. As the syllabus indicates, the writings of anthropologists such as João H. Costa Vargas, Christen Smith, and Keisha-Khan Perry explain these dynamics quite compellingly.
Through multiple writing and speaking activities, including an opening keynote at an international conference in Ecuador that marked the start of the UN Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024) in that part of the hemisphere, I built up the momentum for addressing the factors that have given rise to the #BlackLivesMatter Movement in my teaching, using a prism of antiracism and human rights.
The course attracted a good number of ethnically diverse undergraduate students, the majority of whom were Black. They welcomed having a regular forum for discussing what was going on and why. Among the students who enrolled in the class there were a few members of student organizations involved in sponsoring extra-curricular programs on salient social issues. Not surprisingly, that term there were quite a few events organized to shed light on the debates over #BlackLivesMatter and unrest in Ferguson and other communities. I was invited to speak at some of those events, where I met both campus and community activists, some of whom were part of the #BlackLivesMatter network that linked Champaign-Urbana to antiracist politics in other parts of the country and, ultimately, the world. Toward the end of that semester, African American Studies organized a Freedom Forum, a capstone event to facilitate discussion on BLM, white supremacy, state-sanctioned violence, and intersectional justice—and their implications for the racial climate at UIUC. I participated on the panel that got a vibrant general discussion going. Months later, I ran into individuals who had been in the Freedom Forum audience. They acknowledged the constructive impact the forum had made on them and others, at a time when students, faculty, staff, and administrators really needed a space in which to critically reflect upon the troubling and tragic moment that our society is experiencing.
A community activist and sociology professor at Parkland Community College, another tertiary educational institution in Champaign-Urbana, invited me to be a speaker for the college’s Black History Month programming earlier this year. We had both been panelists in an event on “Taboo Topics” that the undergraduate anthropology student organization had organized in Fall 2015. The taboo topic was none other than #BlackLivesMatter. At the community college, I addressed the global scope of the struggle for Black lives to an audience that included students as well as faculty and administrators.
the ideas and pedagogical activities that shaped the teaching/learning experience in the BLM course I taught in 2015 flowed in and out of that classroom setting
My emphasis in this blog post is that the ideas and pedagogical activities that shaped the teaching/learning experience in the BLM course I taught in 2015 flowed in and out of that classroom setting. Those who benefited from and contributed to the course’s substance were not only the students who enrolled in and attended the class. Some of the students and I took elements of the course contents well beyond the classroom to extra-curricular venues, many of which blurred the boundary between academia and ordinary communities.
My intellectual engagements in my research (on diaspora, race, gender, and human rights), writings, and conference presentations have informed and inspired what I teach in the classroom. Most recently, I delivered a keynote lecture at a conference in South Africa, where anthropologists are seeking clarity on what Achille Mbembe characterizes as a “negative moment” of crisis and unrest—a moment when student activists are demanding that #FeesMustFall as well as the decolonization of education. The considerable public speaking I have done has served as a venue for civic engagement and popular education, that is, as a setting for raising the consciousness and continuing the education of the public. Audience responses, as expressed in the questions and comments made in reaction to my talks, have helped me understand the gaps in my knowledge, which I attempt to fill through further study and research. My conversations and interactions with students, activists, and community members have helped me learn new things, and through these exchanges I have sometimes been able to offer nuanced insights and contextualization that enriches and adds new layers to the knowledge that my interlocutors already have.
My approach to teaching dovetails pedagogy with scholarship and service. Consequently, I perform a great deal of teaching outside the classroom. Nonetheless, the classroom remains an important site for facilitating higher learning and promoting public engagement. The classroom is a site that cannot be relinquished to the forces contributing to the corporatization of higher education. The rights to education, knowledge, and academic freedom must be defended and strengthened. This is a moment when opportunities can be seized to ensure that teaching is an effective praxis that engages salient public issues, including those such as the devaluation and disposability of Black life, as reflected in state-sanctioned violence, repressive policing, mass incarceration, and patterns of socioeconomic marginalization and dispossession.Faye V Harrison is Professor of African American Studies and Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is currently President of the International Union of Anthropological & Ethnological Sciences. Her publications include Decolonizing Anthropology, African-American Pioneers in Anthropology, Resisting Racism & Xenophobia: Global Perspectives on Race, Gender, & Human Rights, and Outsider Within: Reworking Anthropology in the Global Age. She has also contributed to significant collections on the African diaspora, among them, Blackness in Latin America & the Caribbean, Afro-Atlantic Dialogues, and Afro-Descendants, Identity, and the Struggle for Development in the Americas. Her work as a feminist anthropologist appears in such collections as Third World Women & the Politics of Feminism, Women Writing Culture, Situated Lives: Gender and Culture in Everyday Life, and Gender, Livelihood, and Environment: How Women Manage Resources.