Teaching #BlackLivesMatter with Film and Video: Introduction

by Agatha Beins

Black Lives Matter. This phrase—a declaration, a reminder, a demand, a challenge, a celebration, a hashtag—has circulated widely through US media and has been picked up by communities across the globe. It surfaces, as well, in the analog world: on posters, banners, and other ephemera, and it is shouted in the streets. And, as someone located at a university, I have encountered it in scholarly books and articles in addition to conferences and lectures on college campuses. Such visibility reflects the power of this idea, calling not just for tolerance but to actively value Black people, as reflected in the group’s principles: “Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”1

However, its wide circulation reflects neither an uncontested acceptance of the political values affirmed by #BlackLivesMatter nor recognition of the specificity of anti-Black racism. For example, Texas Woman’s University hosted a campus-wide event, “Black Lives Matter: A Dialogue about Race in America,” that included three panelists discussing race and racism from different perspectives: an African American historian, a communications scholar, and cofounder of a local activist organization. Three days after this event, a member of the organizing committee received a brief email message: “I would like to know the dates you’ve scheduled for Blue Lives Matter and All Lives Matter forums.” This phrase—“all lives matter”—and its presumptions need our attention and evaluation, and not just our dismissal. As a reaction to “Black Lives Matter,” it has been called out for displacing and erasing the violence black people live and have lived with in the United States, for falsely presuming that we live in a colorblind society, and for allowing racial privileges to remain unquestioned and unchallenged.2 Nikita Carney explains in her research on Twitter exchanges, “in the guise of presumably broader politics, [#AllLivesMatter] depoliticized and deracialized the specificity of #BlackLivesMatter.”3 In this sense, “all lives matter” reveals another layer of ideas about race that texture contemporary cultural moments, and it represents another discourse educators will likely encounter in their teaching.

Recognizing the difficulties involved in asking people to reflect on and analyze racism, “Teaching #BlackLivesMatter with Film and Video” aims to provide educators with tools they can use in various pedagogical settings. Comprising a full semester’s syllabus, detailed descriptions of a specific classroom activities, and explorations of particular films and videos, this special feature is especially rich in the range of resources it offers. And encompassing the fields of social work, fan studies, critical race studies, film studies, and women’s and gender studies, these contributions astutely and critically bridge the macro and the micro, the practical and the theoretical, the political and the pedagogical through different analytical frameworks. In doing so, these educators highlight the ways that racism has distinct characteristics while it also operates intersectionally with other axes of privilege and oppression, for blackness is not just a racial category but is inflected by gender, class, sexuality, age, ability, religion, to name just a few.

Jameka Hartley shares the syllabus “For Colored Boys: Black Masculinity & the Social Welfare State.” Although based in the field of social work, this course integrates perspectives from multiple disciplines for the purpose of exploring “race, masculinity, sex, and sexuality and the implications for social work and the social welfare state—specifically child welfare—by looking at Black masculinity in the context of American society.” Readings like The Trouble with Black Boys, The New Jim Crow, “How Jaden Smith and The #Carefreeblackboy Movement Are Redefining Black Masculinity,” and African American Policy Forum report “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected” carve a path that leads up to a viewing of the web series For Colored Boys. While Hartley focuses primarily on masculinity, Megan Spencer and Daryl Adkins ask us to engage with black women’s and queer black people’s experiences, noting that “physical and sexual violence and harassment against them does not typically generate the widespread attention that violence against black cisgender men does.” Their lesson plan centers the 1991 film A Place of Rage directed by Pratibha Parmar and outlines readings and activities that they suggest scheduling across four class meetings.

Both Poe Johnson and Melissa Ooten look more closely at fewer films and videos, unpacking their utility in illustrating concepts such as intersectionality and respectability politics in relation to the dynamics of individual and institutional anti-Black racism. Johnson builds on Paolo Friere’s liberation pedagogy by encouraging students to become media producers and active learners.4 Fandom informs the activities Johnson proposes: in one, students refashion black visual media—episodes from the TV shows A Different World and Empire—through GIFs and memes, which allows them to “rewrite masculine-focused narratives in a way that centers different voices.” Ooten, meanwhile, foregrounds several short videos, explaining their pedagogical value and offering readings that might usefully accompany their screening in class. For example, Zandria Robinson’s post “We Slay, Part 1” on her blog New South Negress pairs well with Beyoncé’s video for the song “Formation,” and Ooten suggests that “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” by Audre Lorde usefully contextualizes Jon Lowenstein’s short film Ferguson. Through all these contributions, “Teaching #BlackLivesMatter with Film and Video” joins ongoing conversations about the value of Black lives and, like others, demands that we contend with racism—as it manifests through institutions like the legal system, the school system, and mainstream media, as well as at the local, daily scale, and, importantly, in our own values and actions.

Another dialogue that inspired this special feature is pedagogical. Alongside and enabled by hashtag activism, syllabi and reading lists have been circulating online, aiming to reach as wide an audience as possible and to provide resources for teaching and learning about these complex, messy, difficult, and potentially divisive topics.5 While a web search readily calls up more syllabi than one could look at, the audience for most of these documents is the group of students enrolled in the class, and, consequently, the syllabus is designed for a specific group of people associated with an academic institution. In contrast, hashtag syllabi acknowledge the general public as its readership, doing so by including a range of different kinds of texts (not just academic ones) and, often, by linking to full-text versions of the resources listed. In other words, access is key. This practice of sharing and crowdsourcing in our teaching also asks us to think about who is as educator and who might be interested in learning as well as where, when, and how pedagogical moments occur.

For the hard work activists and educators have done to give us these resources, I am grateful. Similarly I want to recognize the contributors to this special feature, for the time they took the time to craft these syllabi, lesson plans, and pedagogical essays and for their willingness to include them here. Making these resources available is not just a pedagogical act but a political one.

1We Affirm That All Black Lives Matter,” Black Lives Matter, n.d.

2 Orie Givens, “Watch This Queer Poet Dismantle Racist Myth That ‘All Lives Matter,’Advocate, July 21, 2016; Kel Kray, “Your Internalized Dominance Is Showing: A Call-In to White Feminists Who Believe That #AllLivesMatter,” everyday feminism, January 12, 2015.

3 Nikita Carney, “All Lives Matter, but so Does Race: Black Lives Matter and the Evolving Role of Social Media,” Humanity and Society 40, no. 2: 190.

4 Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed,30th Anniversary Edition, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: Bloomsbury, 2005).

5 Below is a list of such syllabi and reading lists:

The following URLs have collected a range of different resources for educators: