African American Intellectual History Society

Share history's most difficult lessons to improve the future

#CharlestonSyllabus display at Boston College Libraries
Many libraries have created displays for #CharlestonSyllabus resources, including this display in O'Neill Library of Boston College Libraries.

"This is why collaboration is so important. I started by linking books to sites where people could purchase the #CharlestonSyllabus resources, but one of the librarians suggested that we link them directly to WorldCat.org. That makes sense because you don't have to purchase a book; you can just show up at a local library and borrow it."

Keisha Blain
Assistant Professor of History, Univeristy of Iowa

On June 17, 2015, a young white man shot and killed nine black people during a Bible study group at the historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Police discovered that the shooter targeted the churchgoers specifically because of their race. One of the victims, Cynthia G. Hurd, was the manager of the St. Andrews Regional Library branch of the Charleston County Public Library. This tragedy contributed to ongoing conversations about systemic prejudice that affects black Americans every day.

"Like many people, I was very upset, distraught, traumatized, enraged by what happened," said Chad Williams, Associate Professor of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University. "I was also very frustrated by not being able to have effective conversations about the very hard, uncomfortable issues at the heart of incidents like this." Chad expressed his desire for these conversations on Twitter, and Keisha Blain, Assistant Professor of History at The University of Iowa, agreed. "I was also frustrated," Keisha explained. "It was clear that there was a lack of knowledge about the long history of racial violence, not just in our own country, but really across the globe."

Keisha, Chad and others began tweeting links to important scholarly resources with the hashtag #CharlestonSyllabus. Although the hashtag makes the list easier to find on Twitter, Keisha noted, "I felt it was necessary to capture the moment." She began compiling the resources on the website of the African American Intellectual History Society, for which she blogs. "It just captures how significant this moment was," she added. "People really wanted to have a conversation about race, so I wanted to put a list together so they can actually have access to the readings that are necessary to have this conversation."

"What the #CharlestonSyllabus provides people with is the opportunity to read a book and feel like, 'If I can't say anything, at least I could learn something.' I think that's a really important first step to having productive conversations."

Chad Williams

Associate Professor of African and Afro-American Studies, Brandeis University

"Within an hour, I saw more than 500 tweets with the hashtag," Keisha remembers, in addition to a steady stream of emails from Chad. Just as she began to feel overwhelmed, she received a tweet from Cecily Walker, Assistant Manager for Community Digital Initiatives and eLearning at Vancouver Public Library, asking if she needed help. Soon, others joined the effort, including Ryan Randall, an MLS student at Indiana University Bloomington; Melissa Morrone, Supervising Librarian in the Information Commons at Brooklyn Public Library; and Elliot Brandow, Senior Digital Scholarship Librarian/Bibliographer for History at O'Neill Library at Boston College.

Together, they divided the suggestions into categories and began collecting them into a bibliographic list. Cecily suggested linking the titles to WorldCat.org so that anyone could access the information from libraries. Since then, Elliot has been tagging the #CharlestonSyllabus resources in WorldCat.org™ so that librarians can quickly see which ones are already in their collections. Chad explained that this effort highlights "the significance of African American Intellectual History Society as being a site of disseminating knowledge about the history and traditions of a black cultural and historical production." He added that there is great value in "linking that to the work that librarians are doing as well."

The #CharlestonSyllabus continues to collect resource suggestions from librarians, scholars and the general public, including works of fiction, movies, music, children's books and much more. "One of the most exciting things that I've seen come out of this," Chad said, "has been libraries, both public libraries and university libraries, developing #CharlestonSyllabus displays. …It really speaks to the power that this could have." He and Keisha hope to see more libraries embracing this momentum through book clubs and discussion groups. In addition, they are working on a separate website for #CharlestonSyllabus resources as well as curriculum guides to help teachers with the background and language needed to discuss sensitive racial issues in the classroom.

"Hopefully," Chad said, "people can use this as a way to further their education about a whole range of issues related to Charleston as well as the broader struggles that African Americans and other people of African descent are facing at this moment." With the help of libraries, this knowledge can be shared with all people.

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Map showing locaation of the church shootings

Institution at a glance

  • Founded in 2014 to further discussion about black thought and culture
  • Maintains a blog with contributions from scholars focusing primarily on African American issues
  • Serves as the current home of the compiled #CharlestonSyllabus bibliographic list
#CharlestonSyllabus display at Florida State University
The Goldstein Library, School of Information, Florida State University, photo by Dawn Betts-Green
#CharlestonSyllabus display at Lipscomb University honoring Cynthia Hurd
Beaman Library, Lipscomb University, photo by Elizabeth Heffington

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