Last Friday, like the rest of us, historian Keisha Blain was scrolling through her social feeds, watching the renewed “national conversation” on race and hate crimes play out in real time, following the tragic shooting of nine black parishioners at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.
There was one post out of all of them that caught her eye. Chad Williams, associate professor and chair of the African and Afro-American Studies Department at Brandeis University, tweeted the following:
That tweet turned out to be the beginning of a new intellectual resource for race relations in America—a crowdsourced guide to dispelling racial ignorance, if you will.
“I liked it, and I quickly responded and said, ‘Great idea, we really should do this,'” Blain told Fusion about Williams’ tweet in an interview. The two exchanged emails a few minutes after the tweet was posted, and they quickly decided that even though he was just venting, compiling a list of resources for people to read to properly contextualize the Charleston shooting would indeed be a great idea. By then, others had already started responding to the original tweet, using the hashtag to make reading suggestions.
Since she blogs for the African American Intellectual History Society, Blain decided to start compiling the suggested readings on its website, under the title #CharlestonSyllabus. “I started making the list, and as I started making it, I would say about an hour passed, and I looked up to the Twitter feed, and I see about 500 new tweets, and at that moment I realized this wouldn’t be just a list of maybe a hundred sources,” she said. Over 10,000 tweets have been posted under the hashtag over the last week, according to Topsy, a social media analytics website.
“This was going to be something much, much bigger, and more definitive than I originally could have imagined,” Blain said.
Thanks to the input of historians, librarians and activists from across the country, the effort has pulled together definitive reads on pressing topics, ranging from “Readings on Slavery in the U.S. South” to historically significant poems, explainers on the racist history of the Confederate flag and “Readings on White Racial Identity.”
Most of the works has been linked to an entry on World Cat, a resource that shows the nearest library where the you can pick up a copy, free of charge. For instance, if you click on The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, a 2014 book by Edward E. Baptiste which I selected completely at random, you get this screen:
And since I’m in Miami as I write this, it shows the nearest library that has copies available. In ten minutes time, if I drove down the street to my alma mater, I could be reading through it at the school library:
“I literally spent all day Saturday taking all the suggestions, organizing them, and adding links to World Cat to allow people to access them easily,” Blain said. “It just happened like that, it grew exponentially.”
It’s too early to get into details, but Blain said she has purchased the domain CharlestonSyllabus.com. “In the coming weeks we’re going to start looking at the website at a way to further organize and to keep a dialogue with the community, beyond just the text themselves,” she said.
“What we see here is an opportunity to connect with people who are committed to social justice, and who are committed to activism in a terrible, pressing time like this, and help them fill in their knowledge gaps,” she said.
“#Charlestonsyllabus is more than a list,” writes Williams, founder of the concept of the syllabus, on the main website. “It is a community of people committed to critical thinking, truth telling and social transformation.”