I immediately zoned in on this piece of his speech when I watched it Sunday night on the BET Awards:
“But freedom is somehow always conditional here. ‘You’re free,’ they keep telling us. But she would have been alive if she hadn’t acted so… free. Now, freedom is always coming in the hereafter, but you know what, though, the hereafter is a hustle. We want it now.”
I wondered how many people got that reference to liberation theology’s insistence that the work of salvation starts here in this world.
Then I wondered how many really got his invocation of lynching with the title phrase from Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” at the end.
Or, the way his statement that “the burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander” evokes Audre Lorde’s argument that just as women are called to educate men about sexism, black women are expected to educate white women about racism, all of which diverts energy away from real change and repeats racist patriarchal power dynamics.
How many people truly understand that whiteness is, in fact, an invention?
And so I started to cobble together the #JesseWilliamsSyllabus, inspired by the #FergusonSyllabus and the #LemonadeSyllabus that have come before. These are books, articles, resources that sit behind and underneath his words. Things that I have read and taught and used and referred to that give me the tools to hear what he said. Things I would direct students to were I teaching this speech in a class. Because I am an educator, and because the majority of the students I teach are white, I constantly look for ways to educate against the white privilege which allows us to live and learn in social and historical ignorance.
Here are a few resources, more or less in order of how I think they relate to excerpts from the speech:
The People’s History of the United States, by Howard ZinnThe Slave Community, by John Blassingame
Ar’nt I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South, by Deborah Gray White
Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South, by Albert J. Raboteau
A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, by Gustavo Gutierrez
A Black Theology of Liberation, by James Cone
Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-talk, by Delores S. Williams
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, by Audre Lorde
Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, by Patricia Hill Collins
Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic
Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, by Toni Morrison
Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City, by Elijah Anderson
“Strange Fruit,” by Billie Holiday (recorded 1939)
Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, by David Margolick
“Our Problematic Belief in the Magical, Mystical Negro,” by Tom Jacobs (Pacific Standard Magazine, October 10, 2014).
There are so many more things we could add to the #JesseWilliamsSyllabus. Now, go forth, read, and by all means do something with the knowledge you have.
It’s what can happen when you choose “comprehension over career.”
Black power image via wikimedia commons.