Charleston Syllabus: Readings on Race, Racism and Racial Violence, Chad Williams, Kidada E. Williams, and Keisha N. Blain, eds. University of Georgia Press, 2016
When Dylann Roof fatally shot nine African-American men and women at their bible study meeting at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 2015, some labeled the incident the act of a lone, disturbed gunman rather than terrorism. This was in the face of Roof’s affinity for movements dedicated to racist violence, his statements to his victims that he was killing them because of his views of their race, and his later proud defense of his massacre as a victory for white supremacy. The U.S. media’s and politicians’ predictable reluctance to understand white-on-black violence as systemic rather than episodic is sustained by a failure of our popular national historical narratives to represent white-on-black violence as pervasive and continuous. In response to this, scholars and others aware of the deep history of white-on-black violence, and of the crucial role of Charleston and the Emanuel African Methodist Church (“Mother Emanuel”) in the racial struggle began to tweet links to historical writings that contextualized the shooting. Chad Williams, Kidada E. Williams, and Keisha N. Blain curated, edited, and supplemented these sources to produce Charleston Syllabus: Readings on Race, Racism and Racial Violence as both a testimony and a counter-narrative, and to establish the existence, and persistence, of white-on-black terrorism in American life.
The writings, organized into six parts, each with an introductory essay, are excerpts from over sixty primary sources (poems, speeches songs, slave narratives, essays), scholarly monographs and articles, and editorials placing the massacre in the context of the history of white-on-black violence in the U.S., with a particular focus on Charleston and “Mother Emanuel” church. All are chosen and edited to make key ideas and theories accessible to an introductory-level undergraduate or a general reader. The writings establish both the structural nature of white-on-black violence and the deep and persistent story of black resistance and strength in facing this violence. Beginning with slavery, and continuing through economic exploitation and violence, segregation, lynching, rapes, and police brutality, white Americans have sought to render black Americans as objects and to deny them the ability for self-determination. For that reason, they have focused their violence particularly on destroying or undermining black Americans’ control of their own bodies, homes, and institutions.
Yet, as the selected readings and essays underline, under slavery, “the bondspeople fought back” (p. 11). And black Americans have been fighting back ever since. Music built solidarity and expressed mourning, dance allowed self-ownership of the body, and political activism fought against slavery, lynching, housing discrimination, which brought, while not complete justice, a bit more of it. Black resistance has always drawn strength from spaces of culture and solidarity, particularly from churches. Indeed, Denmark Vesey helped establish Mother Emanuel, and he likely drew on its strength as he planned an 1822 slave revolt (p. 25–27). Pastor and State Senator Rev. Clementa Pinkney and the other eight victims of the 2015 Charleston shooting were maintaining this space as they met for Bible study. One of the most powerful excerpts in the collection was a speech by the Rev. Pinkney himself, two months before his death, reflecting on the police killing of unarmed black man Walter Scott in North Charleston. Pinkney, implying that he himself had been reluctant to believe that the officer shot a helpless Scott in the back until video evidence emerged, hoped that the now-irrefutable evidence would “at least give us new eyes for seeing” (p. 289).
White-on-black violence, but also black resistance, has always transcended national borders. Esther Armah’s essay, “Black Bodies: White Terrorism: A Global Reimagining of Forgiveness,” expresses this most directly (p. 290–93) But black intellectuals as far back as W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey have shown that resistance must know the global nature of the threat and must draw on the strength of the global black community. “‘Blackness,’” Manning Marable argued “acquires its full revolutionary potential as a social site for resistance only within transnational and Pan-African contexts” (p. 214).
The collection’s reminders of the resilience of black lives and cultures under constant violent assault are so compelling that it is easy to forget, momentarily, that white supremacy has shown itself to be remarkably resilient as well. Pinkney and the other eight churchgoers gathered to maintain the religious culture at the root of collective black strength. Their deaths became a new page in the terrible chronicle of white-on-black terror. Like the late Rev. Clementa Pinkney, we are left to hope that as we gain “new ways of seeing” and more profound ways of contextualizing the violence white supremacism has brought, and continues to bring, against black Americans, our new understandings will help bring an end to the terror.
ELAINE FRANTZ’s recent book, Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan During Reconstruction (University of North Carolina Press, 2016) explores the intersection between national cultural representations of the Klan and its local existence. She is currently working on a history of paid violence, provisionally called “Thugs: A Labor History”.