African American Intellectual History Society

Share history's most difficult lessons to improve the future

#CharlestonSyllabus display at Boston College Libraries
Many libraries 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 N. Blain
President, African American Intellectual History Society, and Associate Professor, University of Pittsburgh

On 17 June 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 racism that affects Black Americans every day.

"Like many people, I was very upset, distraught, traumatized, enraged by what happened," said Chad Williams, who now serves as the Samuel J. and Augusta Spector Chair in History 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 N. Blain, then Assistant Professor of History at The University of Iowa and now Associate Professor at University of Pittsburgh, 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, where she now serves as president. "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

Samuel J. and Augusta Spector Chair in History, 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 at Vancouver Public Library, asking if she needed help. Soon, others joined the effort, including Ryan Randall, then an MLS student at Indiana University Bloomington and now at College of Western Idaho; Melissa Morrone, Supervising Librarian at Brooklyn Public Library; and Elliot Brandow, then Senior Digital Scholarship Librarian/Bibliographer for History at Boston College and now at Tufts University.

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. Elliot tagged the #CharlestonSyllabus resources in WorldCat.org™ so that librarians can quickly see which ones are already in their collections. As Chad explained, 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. With Kidada E. Williams, Associate Professor at Wayne State University, they also edited the book Charleston Syllabus, which collects excerpts of essays to give an overview of race relations, racial violence, and civil rights activism. In February 2021, Keisha and Ibram X. Kendi, founder of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, published Four Hundred Souls, a community history of the 400-year journey of African Americans from 1619 to the present as explored by 90 writers.

"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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  • Princeton, New Jersey, United States

Institution at a glance

  • Founded in 2014 to further discussion about Black thought and culture
  • Supports the research of scholars in the field through an array of fellowships, awards, and prizes
  • Maintains a blog, Black Perspectives, with contributions from scholars focusing primarily on African American issues
  • Serves as the 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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