Brandeis University professor Chad Williams told an Emerson College audience that “we all have a role to play” in this era of racial crisis, and that the choices people make in response to injustice and turmoil add up and “shape history.”
Williams, chair of the African and Afro-American Studies Department at Brandeis, was the keynote speaker of the second Teach-In on Race, a day of workshops and discussions around race, diversity, inclusion, and activism coordinated by Writing, Literature and Publishing Associate Professor Jabari Asim and sponsored by Academic Affairs, Diversity and Inclusion, the Honors Program, and the President's Office. He spoke Friday, October 13, at the Cutler Majestic Theatre.
Williams gave students, faculty, and staff a number of choices he made over the past three years as he taught classes in African American history while also living it.
“We make choices in the moment,” Williams said. “Sometimes they turn out good; sometimes they don’t. What I have learned is the importance of being committed.”
He described teaching an Intro to African American Studies class in Fall 2014, when black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, and at the end of the semester, when a New York grand jury decided not to indict another white police officer in the murder of Eric Garner, a black man. In between was a long list of black people shot by white officers, he said.
He taught them works like W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Assata Shakur’s autobiography, and The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander—works that took on heightened meaning as the bodies piled up.
“I had to steel myself for every class,” he said. “I had to prepare for and anticipate the looks of sadness, confusion, despair on the faces of students who realized the issues ostensibly of the past were part of the present. This was difficult, because I, too, felt many of the same emotions.”
After a tense spring semester, he looked forward to recharging over the summer, only to wake up one morning in June 2015 to the news that a white supremacist had gunned down nine people at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina.
As a historian, Williams said, he put the slaughter into the historical context of attacks on black churches, accusations of raping white women, and lynching.
“The Charleston massacre opened a bloodstained door to the country’s racial history,” he said. I wondered if people would have the courage to walk through it.”
When it became apparent that they would not, Williams took to Twitter.
“What I did is call folks out. Specifically, I called white folks out,” he said. “I said I needed them to step up. I needed them to read something. I needed them to do the work of educating themselves and educating others.” Too often, Williams said, white people expect black people to enlighten them on issues of race, and he was tired of it.
Then he reminded himself that educating people is what he does, so, inspired by the #fergusonsyllabus—a social media movement that sprung up following the killing of Brown—he launched the #charlestonsyllabus and began tweeting out titles of books that people should read, books like those that Williams teaches in his classes.
Other academics jumped in, then those who weren’t scholars joined and thanked Williams and his colleagues for what they had started. They turned the syllabus into a book, which serves as an example of how to turn a crisis into an opportunity to engage, he said.
In Fall 2015, as protests erupted at the University of Missouri over institutional racism and hostility toward people of color, students at Brandeis took over an administration building on campus for 12 days and presented the university’s president with a list of demands for change on campus. Many were Williams’s own students. He checked in with them, offered guidance, and taught classes at the administration building.
A year later, Donald Trump was elected president, and his students were “distraught.” They asked, how could we go from the country’s first black president to this? They thought the nation was making progress.
Williams said he was shocked too, but in hindsight, he shouldn’t have been, because throughout history, progress has never been a sure bet.
“Progress has never been guaranteed, and whatever progress we have achieved has been the result of struggle,” he said. “I told the students they must both study and struggle. That is both their tradition and their heritage. That is what the current moment demanded of them—that is what it demands of us all.”
He said he tells his students to realize that building a social movement is an intellectual endeavor, and that their intellectual work as students (and his as a professor) is political.
We all have expertise and something to contribute to the struggle, Williams said. For his part, he’s a historian and teacher.
“Despite the temptation to fall into despair, we have the ability and the resources and the imagination to respond,” he told the crowd. “It starts here, it starts today, it starts with each of us in this grand auditorium. So let’s get to work.”
Following the talk, an audience member asked Williams about using working class history as a way to bring white people and people of color together, and of moving white people away from identifying primarily as white.
“Whiteness”—its artificiality and destructiveness—has been something black scholars have been trying to get the rest of the nation to deal with for a century, he said. Part of the problem is getting white people to give up that identity and all the privilege that it brings.
As far as class goes, he said it can’t be divorced from race; many of the working class people who are suffering are also people of color, and “they have the most to lose.”
An audience member asked, as a black woman who can be accused of being too loud and passionate around issues of race, ways to have a conversation without getting emotionally charged.
“Get charged up,” he told her. “Get charged up. They want you to be silent. They want you to be respectful. Now is really not the time for that. Now is the time when it is necessary to unsettle folks, to make people recognize the urgency of the moment.”