We Gon’ Be Alright: The Black Lives Matter Movement
New York University
Frank Leon Roberts
Office Hours: By Appointment
Room 401, 1 Washington Place
From the killings of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; to the suspicious death of activist Sandra Bland in Waller Texas; to the choke-hold death of Eric Garner in New York, to the killing of 17 year old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida and 7 year old Aiyana Stanley-Jones in Detroit, Michigan—-#blacklivesmatter has emerged in recent years as a movement committed to resisting, unveiling, and undoing histories of state sanctioned violence against black and brown bodies.
This Gallatin seminar 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. In this course we will be mindful of an important distinction between #blacklivesmatter (as an emergent movement that has come into existence within roughly the past three years) vs. a much older and broader U.S. movement for black lives that has been in existence for several centuries (which can be traced back to at least the first slave uprisings in the antebellum south). Part of our goal then, we be to think about how the former has been influenced by the latter and to what ends. Among the many topics of discussion that we will debate and engage this semester will include: the moral ethics of black rage and riotous forms of protest; violent vs. nonviolent civil disobedience; the hyberbolic media myth of “black on black” crime; coalitional politics and the black feminist and LGBTQ underpinnings of the #blacklivesmatter movement; the similarities and differences between the blacklivesmatter movement and the U.S. civil rights movement; and the dynamics of political protest among the millennial and post-millennial generations.
Our reading material will often be supplemented with live, in-person dialogues with contemporary grassroots activists who are currently involved in the movement. Through our readings and direct engagements with activists on the frontlines, we will ask: How, when, and in what ways is it possible for us to stand in formation against the treacherous legacies of capitalist patriarchal white supremacy?
1. Marc Lamont Hill, Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond (Simon & Schuster, 2016)
2. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, 2012)
3. Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (7 Stories Press, 2003)
4. African American Policy Forum, Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women (African American Policy Forum Report, 2015)
5. Movement for Black Lives, A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, and Justice (Movement for Black Lives Policy Platform, 2016)
6. Assorted essays by Cornel West, Alicia Garza, Audre Lorde, Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, Shaun King, and more available at BlackLivesMatterSyllabus.com
III. Weekly Topics
9/15 Who Are They? Black Lives Matter and the Remaking of American Democracy
9/22 What Do They Want? The Policy Demands of BLM
9/29 Shut It Down: Black Lives Matter and the Ethics of Disruptive Protest
10/6 Black Lives Matter and America’s Voices from the Bottom of the Well: Lessons from Ferguson, Baltimore, Flint, and New York
10/13 #SayHerName: Black Women, Intersectionality, and the Poetics of Black Feminist Organizing
10/20 Black Lives Matter’s Role in Election 2016
10/27 Black Lives Rising: Legacies of Black Rebellion
11/3 Black Lives Matter and The New Jim Crow: Rethinking Prisons and Police Violence in America (Part 1 of 3)
11.10 Black Lives Matter and The New Jim Crow: Rethinking Prisons and Police Violence in America (Part 2 of 3)
11/17 Black Lives Matter and The New Jim Crow: Rethinking Prisons and Police Violence in America (Part 3 of 3)
12/1 Ok, Now Lets Get In Formation: BLM’s Protest Populism
12/8 #SayTheirName: Black Lives Matter’s LGBTQ Underpinnings
12/15 The Futures of Black Lives Matter
IV. Meeting Schedule
Note: An * indicates that the reading material is available online at BlackLivesMatterSyllabus.com
In-Class Screening, “Stay Woke” (Dir. Lauren Grant, Produced by Jesse Williams)
In this session we cover some essential questions: What is the history of the Black Lives Matter movement? What are the guiding principles of the movement? What are some of the major public misconceptions of the movement? How do we distinguish between BLM the organization and BLM the movement? Who have some of the movements key organizational players been? What conceptual differences are there between “the black lives matter movement” vs. “the movement for black lives.” What does any and all of this have to do with the remaking of Arnerican democracy?
*Reflection Paper Due 9/14
Writing Prompt: In our opening session we covered the documentary “Stay Woke,” and the TedTalk “5 Ways of Understanding Black Lives Matter.” We also discussed the social construction of race. Write an 800 word reflection on any of the material covered in our first session and/or in this week’s reading material. Has your understanding of BLM shifted in any way? Has the material covered in these first two weeks being clarifying, or has it led to a greater lack of clarity? Be sure to include two specific discussion questions/talking points that you would like to raise in your small groups.
This week’s session focuses on what has become a hallmark strategy for the black lives matter movement: disruptive protest. Whether it be in the form of protestors shutting down highways; activists staging “Die Ins” on the steps of capital buildings; or community organizers interrupting the stump-speeches of presidential candidates—disruption continues to be a viable political strategy for BLM. As such, this week we will study some of the fundamentals of nonviolent civil disobedience and explore the central role that disruptive protest plays in contemporary black social justice movements. Our conversation will be anchored to two case studies: The University of Missouri-Missou’s Concerned Student 1950 movement (which resulted in the resignation of the University of Missouri’s President) and the recent protest of the national anthem by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepaernick Particular attention will be paid to the vital role that two constituencies have historically played in the black freedom struggle: college students and athletes. This session will also serve as a practical introduction to the art of direct action civil disobedience. We will screen director Spike Lee’s 2016 documentary about the Mizzou movement, “2 Fists Up: We Gon’ Be Alright.”
Contrary to what mainstream media would have us believe, black lives matter has always been a movement organized around specific sets of demands. Though it is true that these demands have been varied and shifting, the fact remains that BLM has always had concrete demands (whether it be the early demand that Police Officer Darren Wilson be indicted for the killing of teenager Michael Brown or the more recent demand that police departments across the nation be defunded and demilitarized). This week, we will focus on the history of the movement’s shifting demands. In an attempt to respond to the often-asked question “What do they want?” – we will closely examine the 2016 platform statement of the Movement for Black Lives. Finally, we will also seek to put pressure on the assumption that policy/legislative reform is the most valuable way to measure the “success” of a social justice movement.
*Reflection Paper Due 9/28
In this week’s session we will be joined by VHI Host and Distinguished Professor of African American Studies at Morehouse College, Marc Lamont Hill, to discuss his manuscript Nobody: Casualities of America’s War on the Vulnerable from Ferguson and Flint and Beyond. Students are strongly encouraged to review the 2016 U.S. Department of Justice Report on the Ferguson Police Department.
*Reflection Paper Due 10/6
Black Lives Matter is a movement grounded in the creative labor and organizing genius of black women. In this session we explore the feminist underpinmngs of BLM, and connect to a broader history of black feminist thought and practice. Special attention will be paid to #SayHerName, a national organizing campaign created by the African American Policy Forum under the leadership of black feminist legal theorist Kimberle Williams Crenshaw.
*Reflection Paper Due 10/12
In this session we discuss how race has shaped presidential politics, from the election of America’s first black president to the current contest for the Oval Office. Particular attention will be paid to the role that the black lives matter movement has played in shaping Election 2016. We will also examine the (often coded) role that race played in the candidacies of Senator Bernie Sanders; Democratic Nominee Hilary Clinton, and Republican Nominee Donald Trump.
*Reflection Paper Due 10/21
Reflection paper : Compare and contrast Eddie Glaude and Michael Eric Dyson’s positions on the presidential choices for 2016. Which perspective resonates most with you, and why? Also: reflect on the PBS roundtable. Which of the panelist’s perspective did you agree with most? Why? Was there anything you felt was missing from the conversation? Your ‘paper” can also take the form of a video vlog cast, if you like.
Field Trip Screening: Nate Parker, Birth of a Nation
In this session we will screen Nate Parker’s 2016 film Birth of a Nation and have a critical discussion about the controversy surrounding it. A licensed professional will be present as we discuss issues related to sexual violence and sexual assault—and critically interrogate how and why these issues are important to BLM. Note: all students reserve the right to refuse to view the film. For those students, alternative arrangements will be made.
Reflection Paper Writing Prompt: On the one hand, Nate Parker’s film points us in the direction of a long legacy that has paved the way for the contemporary #BlackLivesMatter movement: a legacy of black resistance to white supremacy. On the other hand, the controversy surrounding Nate Parker the man points us in the direction of another long legacy: a legacy of male misogyny and sexual violence. Rather than attempt to render these conversations as mutually exclusive, Instead, we will seek to engage them side by side. Is it possible to separate an artist’s personal life from the artistic work that he or she produces? Students are strongly encouraged to independently view Aisha Shahidah Simmons documentary, “No.”
In this session we discuss the history of the prison industrial complex in the United States and its deleterious effect on the lives of black and brown communities, Our guiding text will be Michelle Alexander’s foundational work, The New Jim: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Students are also encouraged to independently review director Ava DuVernay’s 2013 documentary The 13th.
Read: Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
Reflection Paper Due 11/2
In this session we will be joined by community organizer, activist, and senior justice writer for The Daily News, Shaun King. Our reading material will be King’s robust and extensive 25-part series on ending police brutality in Arnerica. Our focus this week will be assessing concrete legislative and policy solutions for ending police violence and misconduct.
Shaun King, 25 Part Essay Series on Police Brutality in America
Reflection Paper Due 11/9
This session focuses on the abolitionist underpinnings of the black lives matter movement. We will wrestle with an internal debate that BLM activists across the country are currently engaging: are the institutions of the police and prisons beyond the point of “reform”? In other words, should our focus be on “reforming” broken institutions (such as the prison system or the police) or is now time for us to consider dismantling these institutions altogether? Moreover, we will define “abolitionism” as not simply the dismantling of broken institutions—but also a commitment to creating and building new worlds.
Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?
Reflection Paper Due 11/16
In this session we examine BLM’s populist appeal. More specifically, we pay attention to the vital role that commercial artists have historically played in amplifying the concerns of black freedom movements. Whether it be Nina Simone and Billie Holiday or Harry Belafonte and James Brown, historically black artists have played important roles in using their platforms as a means of amplifying the struggle for black communal liberation. From Kendrick Lamar’s “We Gon’ Be Alright” and J. Cole’s “We Just Want to Be Free,” to Jesse William’s BET award speech and Ava DuVernay’s Selma—the age of BLM has given birth to a resurgence of commercial black popular culture as a site of sociopolitical critique. Our discussion this session will focus on Beyonce Knowles’s visual album Lemonade.
Select 5 of the following short reviews of your choosing:
Watch in Class:
*Reflection Paper Due 12/1
In this course—and in this movement—all black lives matter. To speak of “all” black lives means refusing to exclusively privilege the lives of cisgendered heterosexual black men. As a movement that has been grounded in the labor of queer black women, Black Lives Matter has remained committed to amplifying voices within that have been historically devalued within the black community: particularly the voices of black women and queer folk. This week’s reading material helps us approach an internal question within BLM that activists continue to debate: why must the struggle for black liberation always also be a struggle for women’s liberation (including an expansion of the very definition of womanhood) and LGBTQ liberation?
In our final session, we will be joined (via Skype) by 2008 Green Party Vice Presidential Candidate Rosa Clemente. Read: TBA later.