Teaching in an Era of Black Lives Matter

Teaching in an Era of Black Lives Matter

One of the functions of social movements is to raise consciousness around a particular problem or issue. The Black Lives Matter movement is no different. Activists have successfully used disruptive protest, policymaking, and social media to influence public debates around structural racism, state violence, policing, and mass incarceration. The movement, as well as my experiences as an anti-racism organizer at the University of Michigan, influenced how I designed my first course on African American History after World War II.1

In my course, “Debating Justice, Politics, and Culture in Black America, From the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter,” I aimed to use African American history to teach first year students college writing. Thus, I had to balance content with writing instruction and chose topics that I thought would provoke the most fruitful conversations and writing.2 I understood that students who enrolled wanted to learn more about social movements, African Americans’ contributions to popular culture, and histories of racialized and gendered state violence. But I also wanted students to learn how to think about contemporary events and phenomena, like Black Lives Matter, historically.

Designing and teaching a course about sensitive topics such as white supremacy, racism, and black politics presented challenges for this first time instructor of record. I remember waiting anxiously to learn the racial and ethnic breakdown of the students. A majority of the class appeared white. Only five students, out of seventeen, identified as students of color. Out of the five students, two of them identified as black women. The challenge with having conversations about race and racism with white students is doing so in a way that challenges preconceived notions and opens them up for debate. With my African American students, I wanted to keep them as engaged as possible. Many African American students (though not all), have extensive experience with talking about racism, and it was important to not reduce them into “representatives” of their race, ethnicity, and nationality.

In order to teach students to talk and write about race, racism, and African American history,I knew it would be important to create a culture of critical thought and exchange, as well as trust, understanding, and generosity. I had to create a space safe enough where I could challenge all students, and where they could challenge each other without fear. Learning and writing about U.S. history is tough because many students face various forms of stigmatization and experience current events such as police shootings in a visceral way, both through social media and in the non-virtual world.

Consequently, we created our classroom culture through collaborative activities, trial and error, and stressing learning from mistakes. In one of the first large class conversations, I asked students to get into small groups and to collectively periodize the history of African American-led direct action. Some argued slavery, some pointed to Gandhian non-violence, and others pointed to the Civil Rights movement. What followed was an extremely spirited, and at times unwieldy, debate. None of the students advanced any ad hominem arguments, but the debate was so vociferous that it left a few students shaken. However, that conversation provoked us to refine class norms collectively. I set general expectations for participation such as supporting arguments with readings and respecting everyone’s views. After reflecting on the class session, the students suggested that they should actually engage each others’ points and not talk past one another. This process of defining and redefining parameters for engagement empowered students to speak freely and to even challenge me when necessary.

Black Lives Matter Teach-in.(©Pratt

I also took the idea of the syllabus as a dynamic living document seriously. I aimed to be as flexible as possible with the calendar without disrupting students’ writing goals. I aspired to provide space to address issues and events as they happened because I thought it would enhance conversations and motivate students to think more historically. When students and student-athletes protested racism at the University of Missouri, I held a teach-in for students interested in learning about the history of campus protest, especially at the University of Michigan. With my students’ permission, I invited others to attend and participate in the conversation. Our attendance doubled for that session. The fact that a majority of the guests did not identify as white altered the dynamic in a classroom of students mostly sympathetic to the protests. The students of color enrolled in the course felt even more empowered to talk, while many white students learned to listen and participate in a more deliberate manner.

Despite the cynicism in public discourse and gloomy political forecasts, those who teach history in colleges and universities could not be in a better position. Barack Obama’s election and presidency, the Great Recession, the disproportionate killings of African Americans by police officers, Black Lives Matter, as well as the rise of Donald Trump and the possibility of Hillary Clinton as the first woman president, have provided an opening for illustrating the necessity of thinking historically. Our students, as aspiring and experienced community organizers, journalists, artists, politicians, entrepreneurs, and most importantly, as citizens, are listening.3

Further Reading

Reading List: Debating Justice, Politics, and Culture in Black America, From the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter. A reading list based upon my writing-based history course that I taught in the Fall of 2015. (Also available as a PDF version.)


  1. The movement has provoked scholars to develop crowdsourced resources for those interested in learning more about the history of particular issues and for instructors looking to design courses the speak to the contemporary moment. African American scholars such as Marcia Chatelain, Leah Wright Rigueur, Keisha N. Blain, and Nathan Connolly have facilitated the creation of #FergusonSyllabus, #CharlestonSyllabus, #MizzouSyllabus, and “Trump Syllabus, 2.0.” See Marcia Chatelain, “How to Teach Kids about What’s Happening in Ferguson,The Atlantic, August 25, 2014; Leah Wright Rigueur, “#MizzouSyllabus,” African American Intellectual Historical Society Blog; Chad Williams, Kidada Williams, and Keisha Blain, Charleston Syllabus: Readings on Race, Racism, and Racial Violence (University of Georgia Press, 2016); N.D.B. Connolly and Keisha N. Blain, “Trump Syllabus, 2.0,” Public Books, June 28, 2016. Return to text.
  2. Students were required to produce over 25 pages of polished writing by the end of the semester. While I had students write a long form essay for their final projects, we explored other forms of writing for different audiences such as movie reviews and blogging, in addition to more traditional writing assignments in history classes such as source analyses. Return to text.
  3. See Chernoh Sesay, Jr.’s “Fall Teaching in a Trump Climate” for a detailed discussion of how Donald Trump’s candidacy may influence teaching during the Fall term. Chernoh, Sesay, Jr., “Fall Teaching in a Trump Climate,” African American Intellectual History Society Blog, August 7, 2016. Return to text.

 Featured image caption: Black Live Matters. Flickr

Austin C. McCoy is a Phd Candidate in History at the University of Michigan. He is writing a dissertation on progressives' responses to plant closings and urban fiscal crises in the Midwest during the 1970s and 1980s.