After learning last week that a white gunman had shot nine black members of a church in Charleston, South Carolina, Chad Williams says he felt "incredible pain."
"It was visceral. I went from shock to sadness to anger," says the professor of African and African-American studies at Brandeis University.
But after two days of mourning, he was spurred to action.
In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Williams says that he was frustrated by the lack of historical context in news stories about the event. "The Charleston shooting is connected to so many important issues… These types of ideas and behaviors and institutions didn't just materialize overnight," he explains.
Williams argues that historical knowledge is essential to making sense of the shooting and discussing how to respond. "People are often not willing to search for the necessary knowledge to have informed conversations," he says, but "having that knowledge is critical to trying to do something about it in the present."
Inspired by historian Marcia Chatelain's #FergusonSyllabus last summer, Williams decided to create a #CharlestonSyllabus.
Williams pulled three fellow historians on board—including the founder of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS)—and the four academics began soliciting and recording suggestions via Twitter for texts that could help readers better understand the events in Charleston.
The four historians posted their #CharlestonSyllabus on the AAIHS website on Saturday, where it has averaged 900 views per hour. The page has been mentioned 13,000 times on Twitter and garnered 20,000 "likes" on Facebook.
By Sunday, the repository was up to 10,000 suggestions, spanning books, articles, movies, poems, music, and more. The items are organized by theme and subject, such as the history of the black church, Charleston, the Confederate flag, and the civil-rights era.
The library can be helpful both for professors choosing texts for their courses or for individuals simply hoping to educate themselves. Williams says one of his main goals for the project was to engage white allies. Given the vast body of scholarship on race available now, Williams argues, "any type of ignorance is willful."
Williams says the overwhelming response to his project has helped ease his pain in the wake of the tragedy. "To know there are other scholars and decent humans out there, grappling with the grief and trauma and at least doing something to educate themselves and other people, is reassuring" (Patton, Chronicle of Higher Education, 6/23).
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