Black Lives Matter

In light of the recent protests and statements in support of Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist organizing efforts, the College of Liberal Arts is highlighting how its courses incorporate issues related to Black Lives Matter. See the descriptions below detailing how CLA faculty advance the anti-racist messaging of Black Lives Matter through assignments, readings, and pedagogical practices that affirm the lives, history, and culture of Black people across the globe. Descriptions fall into one of three categories—Long-Standing Practices, Recent Changes, and Future Plans—designed to demonstrate the ongoing nature of anti-racist efforts:

Long-Standing Practices

Instructor: Emily Berquist Soule
Course: HIST 460: Slavery in Latin America

This course ties the history of slavery and the slave trade in Latin America (ca. 1500-1900) into the broader history of structural oppression and racism in the Western world, linking the beginnings of racialized discourses of discrimination to contemporary phenomena, like the prison-industrial complex in the U.S. and its overwhelming focus on preying on people of color. Students study not only how slavery was justified, operated, and sustained, but also how slaves and free people of color fought against it, both ideologically and with violence.

Instructor: Dr. Kevin Johnson
Course: COMM 441: Freedom of Communication

This course studies the First Amendment generally, and also has a long tradition of covering historical and contemporary issues of (anti-)racism in the United States. For example, the course covers many cases that explicitly discuss the relationship between free speech and (anti-)racist speech in the United States. Cases include Virginia v. Black (cross burning), NAACP v. Alabama (whether NAACP must disclose its membership list), Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement (concerning a white supremacist rally on MLK’s birthday), Brandenberg v. Ohio (concerning KKK members brandishing weapons accompanying racist speech), Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (concerning religious hostility, but also the upholding of race based anti-discrimination laws), Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (concerning Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate, but also upholding  the compelling government interest to prohibit racial discrimination), Christian Legal Society v. Martinez (concerning membership requirements for student organizations, but also whether anti-discrimination policies may be constitutionally interpreted as an “accept all comers” policy or make permissible membership restrictions based on status/conduct distinctions including race), Elonis v. United States (involving threatening speech, but also whether an “intent to threaten”  standard is constitutionally permissible for racist hate speech), and more. Students are assigned to engage in oral arguments about these cases, and are required to study the range of constitutional interpretations necessary to negotiate the relationship between law and anti-racist policymaking. We also unpack a complex episode of black lives in the judiciary, including issues of race and sex that were manifest in replacing America’s first African American Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall with Justice Clarence Thomas; including Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations that Justice Thomas “spoke about such matters as women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes” and graphically describing “his own sexual prowess” and the details of his anatomy, and Justice Thomas’ defense that the entire episode was a “high-tech lynching for uppity-blacks…unless you kow-tow to an old order, this is what will happen to you, you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree.”

Instructor: Dr. Crystal Yin Lie
Course: CWL 315: Literature & Medicine

My CWL 315: Literature & Medicine course thinks critically about the body and health along axes of identity categories like race, gender, sexuality, class, and nationality. As such, I’ve been committed to highlighting the voices of Black authors and the experiences of Black communities.

Beginning the course, students read Mary Louise Pratt’s “Airways” to examine the rhetoric of the “twin pandemics”: COVID-19 and systemic racism. Our discussion of contemporary state violence, morality, and the pandemic are augmented by reading Albert Camus’ critique of capital punishment in The Plague. The following week, students read Audre Lorde, renown Black feminist, lesbian, poet, and civil rights activist. Lorde’s The Cancer Journals enables students to reflect on intersectional identities, the representational ethics around illness, and the reclaiming power of personal narrative.

Our mid-semester conversation pivots on biopower, race, and medical science, drawing from a range of works from Black scholars including Harriet A. Washington’s Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, Bettina Judd’s Patient. poems, and bell hooks’s reflections on the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks. Interrogating the history of violence toward Black bodies in medicine continues in our reading of Victor LaValle’s graphic novel, Destroyer—which tackles police violence, racial and gender inequality in STEM fields, and bioethics in a reimagining of Frankenstein. LaValle also offers an entry way into discussing the possibilities of Afro-/ethno-gothic horror and Afrofuturism.

Dovetailing on creative explorations of inclusive futures, we conclude with a unit on disability poetry and culture. This week includes the work of Leroy Moore, Krip-Hop Nation founder and co-founder of Sins Invalid, a disability justice performance project that centers BIPOC and LGBTQ/gender-variant artists.

Addressing BLM in the context of literature and medicine aims to facilitate anti-racist reflection and actions in students, many of whom desire careers in healthcare-related fields. Reading about Black lives, students not only augment their understanding of health inequities and legacies of racism in modern medicine, but also gain a broader understanding of power dynamics across different embodiments. As such, these conversations add to our other explorations of topics such as colonial violence, ableism, biopiracy, and environmental racism.

Instructor: Dr. Crystal Yin Lie
Course: CWL 213: Comics & Graphic Novels (renamed Comics & Graphic Narratives beginning Fall 2021)

In my CWL 213: Comics & Graphic Novels course, I always include a unit on Afrofuturist comics, centering work by Black authors and scholars. One of the key texts we read is John Jennings and Damian Duffy’s Eisner-winning graphic novel adaptation of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred. Through this text, students discuss the history the enslavement in the U.S. and the affordances of comics in bearing witness to, and critically addressing, racial violence and legacies of injustice. Our secondary reading draws from Sami Schalk’s Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction, offering student’s additional context for thinking about the visual representation of bodily injury and disability in the comic. Furthermore, we explore the genre and notion of Afro-/Ethno-Gothic horror as a means to critique anti-Black violence and the horrors of white supremacy and xenophobia more broadly.

Reading comics at the intersection of Black Lives Matter is central to my commitment to showcasing a diversity of artists perspectives and drawing attention to issues of human and civil rights across global locations and historical period. Furthermore, addressing racial and anti-Black violence in the U.S. enables students to make empathetic connections across different geographic and temporal locations, as well as life experiences that might be very different from their own. As we traverse comics dealing with topics such as the bombing of Hiroshima, the Holocaust, tensions at the U.S.-Mexico Border, and the Iranian Revolution, it is my hope that students not only reflect on cross-cultural historical trauma and political violence, but also our shared humanity and struggles for social justice.

Instructor: Dr. Jeannette Acevedo Rivera  
Course: SPAN 310: Introduction to Literary Analysis 

In Spanish 310: Introduction to Literary Analysis I have always included a section on Afro-Caribbean poetry in which students have the opportunity to explore literary depictions of the experiences of Afro-descendants in Spanish-speaking islands. From Cuba, students read “Mujer negra” (“Black Woman”) by Nancy Morejón, a trans-historical account of a female-slave who narrates how after centuries she becomes part of the new country and participates in its national struggles (including the one for communism). The two examples from Puerto Rico that students analyze give them different perspectives of Afro-Caribbean lives that present the intersections of race and gender. In “Ay, ay, ay de la grifa negra” (“Cry of the Kinky Haired Girl”) Julia de Burgos celebrates the Black female body by exalting her hair, lips, and nose. The poet laments her grandfather’s fate of being a slave but confesses that she prefers that over the shame of him being the master. Meanwhile, Luis Palés Matos portrays in “Majestad negra” (“Black Majesty”) a celebration that evokes the Puerto Rican slave dance, the “bomba,” in which a Black queen is the center of attention. The gendered viewpoint of Palés Matos’s poetic voice allows for an interesting discussion about the fetishization of the Black female subject.   

To me, it is extremely important to expose students to these accounts of Black experiences in a course that gives them a panoramic view of the literature produced in Spanish-speaking countries. The majority of students in that class are Chicanxs/Latinxs who very rarely have learned about racial dynamics in the Caribbean or in the Spanish-speaking world as a whole. As they are now witnessing the appeals and struggles of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, it is essential that they have the tools to question colorism and racism in their own communities.   

Instructor: Dr. Norbert Schürer
Course: ENGL 681R: Jane Austen

When most people think of Jane Austen, they think of pretty bonnets, horse-drawn carriages, and country dances. While those are certainly part of the picture, Austen was also involved in the business of empire, both because she lived in a time of almost constant international war and because two of her brothers became high-ranking officers in the Royal Navy and travelled all over the world in that capacity. In particular, Austen demonstrated some interest in the slave plantations in the West Indies, i.e., the Caribbean. Even more specifically, she was writing in the window between the abolition of the slave trade (1807) and the abolition of enslavement in most of the British empire (1833).

In my major author course on Jane Austen, ENGL 681R, these issues have always formed an important part of the discussion of Austen’s 1814 novel Mansfield Park. After reading the novel, where the main estate is supported by the plantation economy, we discuss the ground-breaking 1993 essay “Jane Austen and Empire” by the Orientalist Edward Said, which argues that Austen implicitly accepted and supported the slave trade. Then, we read some of the many responses to Said, which alternately argue that he is right, that Austen was an anti-racist who opposed slavery, or that she was an ameliorationist who believed that slavery would ‘naturally’ end because the slave trade had been abolished. Finally, we return to Mansfield Park to reassess the novel on our own.

Instructor: Dr. Kerry Woodward
Course: SOC 460: Poverty and Public Policy

 SOC 460: Poverty and Public Policy aims to show how white supremacist policies created the disproportionate poverty faced by Black communities and how racist discourses—and the policies that followed—further entrenched this poverty by promoting policing rather than investment in Black communities. Course readings show that anti-Black racism has been a primary historical and contemporary factor in reproducing economic inequality in the U.S., and in explaining our nation’s high rates of poverty and low levels of redistribution.

Students read The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein, to gain an understanding of the government’s role in the creation of poor Black neighborhoods, and wealthy white suburbs. Next semester, I plan to include parts of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s 2019 book, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, which explores the linkages between government policy and predatory real-estate practices.

Later in the course, we read Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race, by Joe Soss, Richard Fording, and Sanford Schram, to explore the way racism has been a constitutive factor in shaping the anti-welfare, pro-policing policies of the past half century. As part of this unit, we also read a report from The Sentencing Project: Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System.

Throughout the semester, we read a wide variety of materials (including many policy reports) from a range of disciplines. Included in the required readings are works by many scholars of color, especially Black women, including: legal scholar Dorothy Roberts; historian Elizabeth Hinton; sociologist Alexes Harris; and welfare rights activist, Johnnie Tillmon. The course concludes with students finishing their final papers, where they research a social problem related to poverty and then analyze possible policy solutions. Issues related to racial justice—including everything from mass incarceration to immigrant rights to environmental injustice to the eviction crisis—are frequent topics.

Recent Change

Instructor: Dr. Norbert Schürer
Course: ENGL 681R: Jane Austen

In the most recent version of ENGL 681R, I decided also to teach the novel fragment “Sanditon,” which Austen was working on when she died in 1817. While some scholars consider it problematic to teach a fragment (Austen only completed about one fifth of the novel), the text is remarkable because it has a mixed-race character. This character, a young “half mulatto” (Austen’s words), has a white father and a black mother. The novel (such as it exists) hardly deals with her racial status, but rather is develops ideas about her wealth. Various critics and students have interpreted this situation alternately as Austen being blind to race or Austen taking a progressive position in accepting the young woman regardless of her skin color. In the context of Black Lives Matters, it is important for students to discuss these issues and realize that even literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries can deal with race in nuanced ways.