- Hands Up, Don't ShootTeaching Black Lives Matter in Louisiana
In July 2016 Alton Sterling was murdered by police in Baton Rouge. I felt a combination of grief, rage, fear, and powerlessness. Alton could have been one of my students, or perhaps one of their fathers or uncles or brothers or godfathers or friends or neighbors, or he could have been any of those things to me. After his death, a photograph of Alton made the rounds on Facebook, and each time I scrolled past it I was struck by how familiar he was to me—the playful gap in his gold teeth, the tattoo on his arm relaxed at his side, bright-blue polo shirt tucked into pressed jeans hanging comfortably around his hips, heavy brass and leather belt buckle glinting in the sun. He looked like himself, unique and important. In his eyes, squinting against the hot sky, I recognized myself—a young black parent somehow making their way forward and through.1
I teach at a predominantly white institution (PWI) in Louisiana, though nearly a quarter of our student body is black, from New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Lake Charles, and small towns scattered across the state. I knew I needed to address the terrible anxiety, fear, and dread my black students were certainly feeling when we returned from our summer break, but I didn't know how to. I was anxious and afraid, too, nervous of going too far as the only black woman in the department, and the first ever to be awarded tenure in the English Department's history. I'd been told more than once by proud administrators that in 1954 the university where I work, then known as Southwest Louisiana Institute, peacefully enrolled four black students eight years [End Page 114] before James Meredith was met by a seething mob at Ole Miss. How, then, was it possible that I could be the first in sixty-three years? Patricia Hill Collins explains that black women—regardless of our social or economic position—are caught in the "seamless web of economy, polity, and ideology … designed to keep African-American women in an assigned, subordinate place," and "this larger system of oppression works to suppress the ideas of Black women intellectuals" (5). Even though black women intellectuals have long existed,
until recently these women have not held leadership in universities, professional associations, publishing concerns, broadcast media, and other social institutions of knowledge validation. Black women's exclusion from positions of power within mainstream institutions has led to the elevation of elite White male ideas and interests and the corresponding suppression of Black women's ideas and interests in traditional scholarship.(5)
In spite of more than half a century of integrating educational institutions, black women remain precariat academic subjects.
It is not only that our black thought is suppressed, though that weight is heavy enough. Our black bodies are likewise positioned perilously on campus, in our departments, in the classroom, in our neighborhoods, inside our homes with the doors locked, in the parking lot of the Triple S Food Mart. It is not an easy thing to reconcile that at any moment your bodily autonomy can be interpreted violently against your will as not-belonging and therefore dangerous. The consequence for failing to recognize us as familiar subjects is often death.
I need to make emotional and intellectual sense of the senselessness of black death if I am going to survive—otherwise the despair would eat me alive. I understand that my students need and deserve an opportunity to do the same in a safe space; in the main, this is why I became a professor, so I could offer this to my students. I considered a number of ways to respond to Alton's death, and the difficult conditions of black life in Louisiana. I thought about joining local protests already in motion, fostering political organization in my majority-black rural Louisiana town, or working with student groups and departments to host symposia addressing the precarity of black life, but fundamentally I concluded that, for me, this work had to be done in the classroom, in my...