- #SouthernsyllabusTeaching and Activism in Southern Studies
In the summer of 2015, I was asked to teach a weeklong course for incoming students to acclimate them to a discussion-based liberal arts classroom. This was the same summer that Dylann Roof massacred nine people at Mother Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the media was filled with articles about the killer and his obsession with white nationalism and Confederate fetishization. I chose to focus the class on legacies of white supremacy, and we discussed ways in which Confederate memorialization continues to resonate in contemporary society, including monuments, Confederate emblems on state flags, and a political current of white supremacy. During one class, I asked the students if they had ever had an open, interracial conversation about racism in a classroom before. Almost all of them said no, either because they weren't allowed to discuss race openly in their schools or because their classes were effectively segregated because all of their classmates were of the same race. I found this disturbing, and it suggested that students urgently need space to talk through these issues.
At the same time that I was teaching this course, scholars were using the hashtag #charlestonsyllabus on social media to crowdsource readings on Charleston's history of slavery and racism, white supremacy, and black resistance. They were following a similar movement that emerged after Michael Brown's murder in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, when scholars used the hashtag #fergusonsyllabus to compile readings about systemic racism and [End Page 93] police brutality. In 2017, the hashtag #charlottesvillesyllabus emerged after the alt-right white nationalist marches at the University of Virginia that resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer. I realized that teaching about white supremacy remains consistently topical and relevant to incoming students and interracial conversations were less common than one might hope.
These are conversations that we need to have because the South is a persistent site of crisis. The region's defining characteristic is a consistent legacy of human rights infringement from the time settler colonists arrived on this continent until the present day. The South shares this legacy with virtually all nations affected by colonialism, the global slave trade, and the production of plantation commodities, but the South is also part of a nation that speciously claims to be the land of the free, a city on a hill, and a place where all men are created equal. Our history demonstrates that this isn't true, however, and the South's history of race-based plantation slavery continues to influence its present social and political structure. In 1860, for example, Abraham Lincoln commissioned a map of the distribution of slaves in the southern states, and it shows a swath of slaves across the lower South and the Mississippi River; and a data visualization of racial distribution based on the 2010 census shows a preponderance of African Americans along the same bands. One hundred and fifty years after Emancipation and in spite of waves of out-migration, the South continues to be home to the preponderance of African Americans, and the South is still a site of racism and discrimination. The past century and a half have witnessed thousands of lynchings, Jim Crow segregation, and a tumultuous movement for civil rights. The degree of equality that African Americans in the South enjoy today has been hard won, and as the disproportionate rates of poverty, lower life expectancy, and mass incarceration indicate, actual equality remains a long way off. Although the entire United States is complicit in these problems, we, as experts on the South, are situated to focus attention on the region's problems.
As professors of southern studies, what can we do to address these issues, both the emergent crises and the systemic problems? In our classes, we can provide historical and cultural context for these issues, we can foster critical thinking to help our students understand the underlying circumstances that contribute to the region's problems, and we can allow students to share ideas and opinions with each other to promote [End Page 94] productive empathetic thinking. We can also contribute to public discourse to...