Charleston Syllabus edited by Chad Williams, Kidada Williams, and Keisha N. Blain

Synopsis:

27507970On June 17, 2015, a white supremacist entered Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and sat with some of its parishioners during a Wednesday night Bible study session. An hour later, he began expressing his hatred for African Americans, and soon after, he shot nine church members dead, the church’s pastor and South Carolina state senator, Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, among them. The ensuing manhunt for the shooter and investigation of his motives revealed his beliefs in white supremacy and reopened debates about racial conflict, southern identity,systemic racism, civil rights, and the African American church as an institution. In the aftermath of the massacre, Professors Chad Williams, Kidada Williams, and Keisha N. Blain sought a way to put the murder – and the subsequent debates about it in the media – in the context of America’s tumultuous history of race relations and racial violence on a global scale. They created the Charleston Syllabus on June 19, starting it as a hashtag on Twitter linking to scholarly works on the myriad of issues related to the murder. Charleston Syllabus is a reader – a collection of new essays and columns published in the wake of the massacre, along with selected excerpts from key existing scholarly books and general-interest articles. As timely as it is necessary, the book will be a valuable resource for understanding the roots of American systemic racism, white privilege, the uses and abuses of the Confederate flag and its ideals, the black church as a foundation for civil rights activity and state violence against such activity, and critical whiteness studies.

Review:

As an American in Japan there’s literally half a world between me and events in my home country.  Major news gets clipped down by the Japanese media – “Yet another shooting in America.  Somebody shot X people because of historical hatred/current events/being psychologically unstable.  Y people are protesting. Police are investigating.”

After the Charleston shooting, where a white male shot nine black people in a racially motivated crime, I knew I needed more information.  The Japanese news didn’t have it.  The American online media added some background, but not enough.  Luckily #CharlestonSyllabus, a hashtag on Twitter started by the editors of this book, collected all kinds of books, articles, primary source documents, and even songs that related to the shooting and the history that leads up to it.  The list is extensive and deep; you can find it here and at the back of the book.

Extensive and deep is good, but it also meant I had no idea where I should start.  I put a couple of titles on my library wish list, where they still linger.

That’s where this one volume Charleston Syllabus comes in.  It’s organized into six chapters covering everything from slavery and religion to Malcolm X and Black Lives Matter.  Each section starts off with a historical overview before turning over to historical documents, scholarly analysis, and articles from the days and weeks after the massacre.  I love how all the different kinds of writing nestle up against each other – a slave’s first person account next to a song they may have sung while working, next to a scholarly article on the events of the period.  The variety and breadth of the sources help you get a deep understanding of the historical context and how it relates to today’s news.

Throughout the book I found myself thinking, how could my education have failed me so badly?  Why haven’t I studied Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a kick butt investigative journalist?  Why wasn’t an annotated Constitution of the Confederate States put before me?  There is so much more history than the cotton gin and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Charleston Syllabus filled in many of those holes in my knowledge.  It opened my eyes to topics and controversies I only heard of in passing.  It gave me a lot to think about and pointed me towards time periods and people I’d like to study more deeply.

If you’re American this book will help you grapple with the complicated mess that is racial relations in our country.  If you’re not American it will show you how current events are related to a long and terrifying history of slavery and oppression.  Charleston Syllabus is a must read for anyone that wants to understand how things went wrong and think about where we can go from here.

Thanks to University of Georgia Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

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