Teaching #BlackLivesMatter in the Introductory Gender Studies Classroom: A Primer

by Melissa Ooten

This essay introduces a range of short media and films that have proven effective in my gender studies classroom. I chose these pieces with the introductory class in mind, populated with students who may have an interest in gender studies but who harbor a range of knowledge related to the material being presented to them. Since students may not readily understand concepts like intersectionality (the ways in which differing identities link together to form more marginalized or more privileged positions within society), I use media to illustrate such ideas in interesting, nuanced ways, and in this essay I suggest different media and readings specifically to show how the #BlackLivesMatter movement is intricately linked to feminism today. Educators can utilize these works together or separately depending on their classroom needs: the readings can be paired with the films or be used only by the educator in order to think of some broader contexts in which to best situate the films and media. It is my hope that these films, which vary from a straightforward documentary to a music video, will provide a variety of entry points to generate engaged dialogue and understanding across a variety of classrooms.

MSNBC’s seven-minute original short film entitled Queerness on the Front Lines of #BlackLivesMatter offers an excellent introduction to studying #BlackLivesMatter in the classroom. It’s brief and is of particular importance to the introductory gender studies classroom. It begins with Patrisse Cullors, one of the cofounders of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and movement, stating: “When we say ‘Black lives matter,’ we mean Black trans folks; we mean Black queer folks.”1 From the start, this piece centers what Cullors calls “the significant amount of trans-ness and queerness happening on the front lines” of the movement. It proceeds to give a brief history of how the hashtag and movement began.

This piece is compelling for classroom use because of its insistence on building a social movement across a range of marginalized identities. Introductory gender studies courses typically include some coverage of the U.S. feminist “waves” or movements and the ways in which marginalized people have often been excluded from the mainstream components of those movements, particularly the first and second waves. Cullors discusses how she and others founded #BlackLivesMatter as a response to the historical marginalization of queer and trans people being pushed out of the news coverage and history of such movements. She also notes that as the movement grew, Black, cisgender, heterosexual Christian men were once again placed at the forefront of the conversation, highlighted by the media as the main people—and often the only people—facing such violence.

Queerness on the Front Lines of #BlackLivesMatter, then, offers a case study on a modern-day movement built on inclusion that struggles to maintain an intersectional focus on Black trans and queer people as it grows in size and outpaces its founders’ visions. Because movement building is integral to the gender studies classroom, this video highlights not only the importance of thinking and acting with intention around inclusion but also how movements cannot easily be “managed.” Viewers also see that from its inception, this movement upheld Black trans and Black queer lives as just as important as any other lives, although that focus has often been lost in recent media coverage.

A number of readings pair well with Queerness on the Frontlines, in particular Alicia Garza and L.A. Kauffman’s “A Love Note to Our Folks,” which gives further detail about the origins of the movement from co-founder Garza and foregrounds the ways in which feminism informed the movement’s roots in relationship building.2 The article also serves as a primer on how to create and execute effective activism that bridges the virtual and physical worlds around us. That is, while the hashtag helped to mobilize the movement, community activism in the streets was equally important. Thus “A Love Note” nicely illustrates to entry-level students the importance of effectively mobilizing action across different spaces.

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric also works well with this video.3 Rankine won a 2016 MacArthur “Genius” award, and her book was a finalist for the National Book Award. While many reviewers have noted that the book defies characterization, it may be best described as a prose poem. It’s not a long read, but I suggest using Part I (of seven parts) if there is not time to assign the book in full. This part of the book details every day, “ordinary” occurrences of racism that pile up day after day, including an incident when the author asks a friend, a black man, to babysit and ends with white neighbors calling the police on him. In relation to Queerness on the Frontlines, it details what it is like to live in the United States as a person of color who is continually deemed suspect.

Jon Lowenstein’s Ferguson is a five-minute black-and-white film created in August 2014 in the aftermath of Michael Brown being killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, and the killing of Kajieme Powell in a confrontation with police nine days later in nearby St. Louis.4 This emotive film provides a valuable contrast to the documentary style of Queerness on the Frontlines.5 This film documents police advancing forward in full riot gear as an observer yells, “My name is Mike Brown,” and starts listing all of the weapons available to the police while repeating that Brown was unarmed. People on the ground writhe from tear gas while others flush out their eyes with water. Protestors shout refrains such as, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” and, “We got no funds, no good education, all we got is our voice.” The film closes with a Black former police officer reiterating, “This is our life as Black Americans in this country, year after year.”

While Queerness on the Frontlines provides important detail for understanding the ideologies that undergird the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Ferguson provides a vital emotional response. It contains no voiceover, and only a few voices of protestors.  Its power derives from the imagery and the juxtaposition of ordinarily dressed protestors amidst fully armored police officers. As an artistic endeavor, it complements Queerness while offering viewers a more visceral connection to the movement.

Audre Lorde’s “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” provides necessary context for Ferguson.6 While Lorde’s piece is ostensibly about tokenism at an academic conference, it easily applies to #BlackLivesMatter. Originally written in 1983, she foregrounds the intersections of inequality, critiquing white feminists for not educating themselves about Black women and writing that “women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the oppressor’s concerns.”7 She further notes that “racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and this time,” which is as prescient today as it was when she first wrote it.8 Lorde’s piece works well here because it seeks to understand what tools will address and end marginalization and oppression. She insists it will not and cannot be the same tools utilized by dominant society. That’s an important concept for introductory students to learn. The tools some will think most useful may in fact serve to further solidify the power of those already in privileged positions.

Both Queerness on the Front Lines and Ferguson harken back to well-publicized killings of young Black men. The cofounders of #BlackLivesMatter mobilized after George Zimmerman murdered unarmed seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2013. Ferguson is self-explanatory. The following classroom recommendations have no direct connection to the movement, but they can be immensely valuable to use with students new to the feminist classroom and concepts like intersectionality, privilege, and oppression.

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” implores audiences to learn individuals’ and communities’ multifaceted stories.9 Adichie describes examples of others assuming she had only one story, like when her American college roommate expressed interested in her “tribal music” only to learn that she listened to international nineties pop sensation Mariah Carey. She then discusses the son of her family’s housekeeper and how she assumed he, and others in poverty like him, had a single story of destitution worthy of only pity.

Adichie’s talk is valuable because she links understanding to power. She tells her viewers that by not understanding other people, some communities are left vulnerable to single stories of criminality or laziness. Those with power can then amplify these stories, making them definitive. For students who are new, and perhaps even resistant, to topics covered in a gender studies classroom, this talk introduces them to difficult content in a very accessible manner by someone who acknowledges her own faults in relying on stereotypes and gross generalizations about people she did not know well.

Adichie’s short book We Should All Be Feminists pairs well with her talk.10 While educators may want to assign more theoretical pieces on feminist thought in the introductory classroom, this piece is again important due to its accessibility. Challenging the larger cultural stigma against feminism, this piece can go far in reaching students by approaching the topic in a nonjudgmental way. It also centers intersectionality in ways that students can relate to and understand.

The Combahee River Collective’s “Black Feminist Statement” is an essential reading here. The statement, written in 1974, details how the collective framed its antisexist and antiracist work through its resistance to heterosexism and economic oppression. The Collective writes, “as Black feminists and Lesbians, we know that we have a very definite revolutionary task to perform and we are ready for the lifetime of work and struggle before us.”11 The statement articulates the collective’s purpose in a vein similar to that of the #BlackLivesMatter founders. In this sense it helps students better understand the way queer women of color have historically been marginalized within social justice movements while also discovering their long histories of activist practices. This statement addresses both the racism Black women often experienced within the women’s movement as well as the sexism they sometimes faced in the civil rights movement, not to mention the heterosexism they often encountered in both. The collective’s statement shows how these issues of dominance and marginalization require as much attention today as they did historically. It also highlights intersections of identities as they relate to power. As the Collective writes, “The major source of difficulty in our political work is that we are not just trying to fight oppression on one front or even two, but instead to address a whole range of oppressions.”12

Finally, I recommend teaching a piece of popular culture that will be very familiar to younger students. Pop sensation Beyoncé’s music video “Formation,” from her 2016 album Lemonade, adds a critical popular culture element to teaching #BlackLivesMatter.13 “Formation” went viral upon its release, and with Lemonade Beyoncé became the first artist to reach the number one position on the Billboard music charts with six consecutive albums.14 Dissecting and analyzing a piece of popular culture as nuanced and layered as “Formation” may seem daunting, but students are typically incredibly immersed in popular culture. Not only will they appreciate the inclusion of this content, but it also will help them better hone their analytical skills related to visual culture.

Beyoncé released the song “Formation” one day after what would have been Trayvon Martin’s twentieth-first birthday and one day before what would have been Sandra Bland’s twenty-ninth.15 And it wasn’t released in a vacuum. Two years earlier, she stood behind a blaring sign that declared “FEMINIST” at the MTV Video Music Awards, and her 2016 Super Bowl performance paid homage to the Black Panthers.

The “Formation” video begins and ends with Beyoncé sitting atop a New Orleans police car sinking into the floodwaters with the iconic shotgun homes of the city in the background. By its end, both she and the car are submerged underwater. The video juxtaposes Beyoncé-style dancing with potent symbolism, including police in riot gear and the spray-painted words “stop shooting us,” and unmistakable references to New Orleans—from second line parades and Mardi Gras Indians to the passages underneath highways where so many homeless residents sheltered in the months and even years following Hurricane Katrina.

As a historian, I prefer to focus on the ways in which the video showcases the national crisis that was Hurricane Katrina. Around the world, media broadcast images of stranded, suffering, and sometimes dying African Americans, people living in one of the world’s richest nations who had been abandoned in the aftermath of Katrina. Of course, the deeper story is that these people, who were both poor and Black, had been abandoned long ago, and Katrina simply aired how communities that had been vulnerable pre-Katrina were absolutely devastated by a hurricane that was a weak Category 1 when it swept across New Orleans. The images of primarily poor people of color that Katrina made known to the world supposedly shocked many viewers and demonstrated that some lives clearly did not matter in the United States. While the high-profile killing of Black people by police eventually instigated the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Katrina was one incident that rendered visible an outpouring of outrage about so many being left to die and served as an important precursor to later action.

For a short piece on “Formation” as a practice of resistance, students can read Zandria Robinson’s post “We Slay, Part 1” on her blog New South Negress.16 To further interrogate themes of the song and video, which include resistance to majority culture and histories of Black women’s collective power in the southern United States, Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: The Creativity of Black Women in the South,” originally written as an essay in 1974, is an important accompaniment.17 Among other questions that Walker explores is if, and if so how, Black women kept creativity alive while enduring lives of terrible hardship and violence under systems of exploitation ranging from outright enslavement to sharecropping, which often functioned as slavery by another name. This piece gives historical weight to Beyoncé’s video and assists students in understanding the long history of Black women’s resistance.

All of these pieces outlined above work well together, but they also can stand on their own. For those who want to devote an entire unit to #BlackLivesMatter, all of these videos can be used in order to cover a range of issues that intersect between the movement and the gender studies classroom. Educators who want to tackle only one video may be particularly interested in recovering how three queer Black women started the movement and why the narrative has shifted away from them and to straight, cisgender Black men as the movement has grown in popularity (Queerness on the Frontlines). Regardless, any of these pieces can open discussion around this national movement whose relevance is only growing. This material will both challenge and educate students in the introductory gender studies classroom, while teaching them how to dissect and apply important concepts to a contemporary social justice movement unfolding in real time.

1Queerness on the Front Lines of #BlackLivesMatter,” MSNBC Digital Documentaries, 7:02, February 19, 2015.

2 Alicia Garza and L.A. Kauffman, “A Love Note to Our Folks: Alicia Garza on the Organizing of #BlackLivesMatter,” n+1 Magazine, January 20, 2015.

3 Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Minneapolis: Greywolf, 2014).

4 Jon Lowenstein, Ferguson, 5:05, 2014.

5 As opposed to the traditional documentary style of Queerness on the Front Lines, Ferguson offers a more strikingly emotional portrayal of events. By focusing on artistic storytelling, this style of filmmaking has the potential to connect to students who might not ordinarily be engaged by a documentary about police killings of young Black men.

6 Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, ed. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (New York: Kitchen Table Press, 1983), 94-101.

7 Ibid., 96.

8 Ibid., 97.

9 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story,” TEDGlobal video, 18:49, July 2009.

10 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists (New York: Random House, 2014).    

11 Combahee River Collective, “The Combahee River Collective Statement,” in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, ed. Barbara Smith (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000 [1983]), 273.

12 Ibid., 273.

13 Beyoncé, “Formation,” YouTube video, 4:47, posted December 9, 2016.

14 Keith Caulfield, “Beyoncé Earns Sixth No. 1 on Billboard 200 Chart with ‘Lemonade,’ billboard, May 1, 2016.

15 George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012. Sandra Bland died in a jail cell on July 13, 2015, after being pulled over by police for a routine traffic stop.

16 Zandria, “We Slay, Part 1,” New South Negress [2016].

17 Alice Walker, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1983), 231-43.

Melissa Ooten (mooten@richmond.edu) is a gender research specialist at the University of Richmond. She studies and teaches on the intersections of race and gender in contemporary history, memory, and popular culture. Her first book is entitled Race, Gender, and Film Censorship in Virginia, 1922-1965.