In the first weeks of a Fall 2019 class on U.S. Literature and the Law, my students and I paused while we were discussing Cheryl Harris’s landmark essay “Whiteness as Property” (1991) to look around us. We were unpacking what Harris meant by describing whiteness as the “conceptual nucleus” of American social life. The essay is blunt. Harris details how “systems of domination of Black and Native peoples” stemmed from a “jealously guarded” conception of whiteness that secured “tangible and economically valuable benefits” to white people. Whiteness meant the ability to possess and exclude others from property—and these abilities became the definition of what it meant to have rights at all.
I had just moved to Virginia for a Visiting Assistant Professorship in English and American Studies at William & Mary. When I mentioned that William & Mary is a mere five miles from the Jamestown settlement in class, one of my Black students shared that the building next door had housed the enslaved servants of students before the Civil War. We sat at a literal juncture where the pairing of colonization and enslavement began to congeal into the fact of our present, just as Harris describes. Our campus—and the whiteness of the student body and faculty, including myself—was obviously inseparable from that history.
The following summer in Richmond, where I lived for that academic year, Black Lives Matter protests erupted after the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. When I joined protests in those days and nights and listened to the demands of the city’s activists, my conversation with my students seemed both prescient and small. During those months, people reclaimed Richmond’s streets and began tearing down monuments to the Confederacy, at one point lighting the Confederate Daughters of America building on fire. The most infamous monument, an equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee, became a gathering site for many peaceful actions that summer; the police responded with disproportionate violence. That part of Richmond was so steeped in Confederate symbolism that even Richmond’s young Black mayor, Levar Stoney, hadn’t feel comfortable visiting that part of the city before.
After a year of court cases to determine its fate, the Lee statue was finally removed in September 2021. The future of the site is currently undecided. But in the summer of 2020, Black people assembled daily, playing basketball, performing spoken-word pieces, playing music, and gathering in a spirit that seemed impossible just a month earlier. By July, monuments were covered in graffiti art proclaiming Black Lives Matter, FTP, resist. People organized support networks and demanded action from the Mayor to end racist policing and to support Richmond’s Black communities in more meaningful ways. Mutual aid groups congregated, offering supplies for the where the city failed.
These two spaces—the college classroom built for enslavers, the traffic circle dedicated to a racist insurrectionist—tell a shared story about the way norms convey white supremacy into the future. But their pairing also emphasizes how much work higher education has to do to confront its own oppressive legacies. Some campuses, including William & Mary, are working to acknowledge the legacies of slavery and colonization in their buildings and landscapes. But universities are about more than the history of such buildings—they’re about what happens inside them. And despite the attempts of campuses to reference their traumatic histories with web resources or commemorative plaques, academic fields and disciplines themselves are often at the core of the problem. As Alicia Christoff, Ronjaunee Chatterjee, and Amy Wong’s call for Victorian Studies to reject its racist disciplining and groups like #ShakeRace or #BiggerSix and #POC19 indicate, early career scholars are challenging the dogmas that maintain whiteness in well-established fields with new vigor. At the same time, as Nasia Anam and many others observe, fields that challenge histories of white supremacy and colonization are confronted with insufficient resources and defunding. Meanwhile, university administrations are co-opting movements like Black Lives Matter in corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion language that gestures to equity without providing tangible support.
In this light, we are bound to ask: Does our teaching materially reckon with institutional pasts, or does it extend traumas into the present? What can we do to both teach a history of white supremacy and center histories of resistance and transformation? How can all of us help to put the work of our colleagues in fields like Black, Postcolonial, and Indigenous studies at the core of the mission of higher education rather than its embattled periphery?
What happened to Richmond’s monuments last year might prove instructive. Before the COVID-19 crisis and before crowds began toppling monuments in the summer of 2020, Richmond renamed the street where the Stonewall Jackson monument towered after Arthur Ashe, a Richmond native and the first Black tennis player to win at Wimbledon. That December, the Virginia Museum of Fine Art unveiled an equestrian statue of a young Black man by Kehinde Wiley, a visual response to the equestrian statues of Confederate generals. To the city, this seems like progress.
But a talk I attended by Christina Sharpe at Virginia Commonwealth University in September 2019 made me question what kind of progress these additions represented. As an example, Sharpe discussed the Equal Justice Initiative’s memorial to lynching that was opened in Birmingham in 2018. Despite EJI’s intention of teaching about lynching’s brutal history, Sharpe wondered whether the memorial might reinforce the trauma of white supremacy. Her most unsettling claim was that “every memorial to atrocity already contains its own failure.” Her talk questioned what memorials to slavery and Jim Crow hoped to achieve in monumentalizing past violence. Reflecting on Richmond’s own monuments, Sharpe explained that she wasn’t interested in Confederate statues, whose message was clear. Instead she wondered: If well-intentioned new installations force viewers to confront the past through visual motifs once used to memorialize white supremacy, who was that confrontation for?
I thought about this question because of the way that the Black Lives Matter uprising approached Richmond’s infamous monuments. Though people assembled at places like the Lee Monument, these gatherings weren’t really about the monument itself. They were about using those sites of violence to turn public attention to the living needs of marginalized people right now. The monuments became the occasion to challenge the city’s institutions, creating a moment of democratized, collective learning in the process. That collective learning was directed not at recognizing a past that clearly lived in the present – but on concrete action to remake the world around us.
As chance would have it, I missed the opportunity to incorporate what I witnessed in the protests against Richmond’s monuments to my teaching at William & Mary. As the summer wound down, I left my visiting position for a tenure-track job at San Francisco State University, a quite different campus in a famously activist city. SFSU itself embodies the conflict between academic disciplinarity and the often-ignored needs of marginalized students; a historic, five-month student strike over the institution’s Eurocentric curriculum in 1968 gave birth to the nation’s first dedicated School of Ethnic Studies. Social justice is now at the core of the university’s pedagogical objectives. Yet when I was tasked with teaching a class on the American Renaissance—the period of U.S. literature that put American writers like Melville, Emerson, and Hawthorne at the center of American literary studies—I confronted the curricular requirements to cover a canonical history that felt at odds with the moment. How could I bring the energy of the summer to reflect on one of the most iconic—and white—periods of U.S. literature?
Preparing my syllabus, I returned to Saidiya Hartman’s methods for interpreting against the grain of history. Part of her iconic book, Scenes of Subjection, not only centers stories of Black American life that historical canons elide; it also argues that “practices of everyday life” provide models of resistance that often don’t make it into our historical record. Instead of focusing on trauma, she uncovers agency in small, interpersonal, and evasive acts of resistance. These small acts, she contends, reject the “grand narratives” of the past that we tend to tell over and over again. Instead, Hartman celebrates how even small moments of noncompliance provide ways of contesting the “silence … and domination” embedded in most of our histories. For Hartman, these practices contain the kernel of a utopian freedom; they are also the mundane activities that give resistance movements sustenance.
Everyday practices pop up in protest movements, but protests themselves are not exactly everyday. After all, community organizing requires continuous effort—but those efforts, too, have a long history that we can teach. Derrick Spires demonstrates as much in his recent book, The Practices of Citizenship (2019). In the book, he imagines U.S. citizenship from Black perspectives, not from the viewpoint of racist whites hellbent on excluding Black people from government. Organizations like mutual aid societies, political conventions, and magazine forums for fiction demonstrate how early nineteenth-century Black cultures embody a civic participation that white people refused to recognize. Spires wonders: what would U.S. intellectual history look like if, “instead of reading Black writers as reacting to or a presence in a largely white-defined discourse, we base our working definition of citizenship on black writers’ proactive attempts to describe their own political work?” Even recuperative histories often imagine Black people, in Spires’ words, as “primarily responding rather than creating.”
For Spires, turning to Black everyday practices of citizenship rejects the centrality of white values that have been hostile to Black life. Those practices look familiar today in Richmond and beyond, where mutual aid groups meet community needs during the pandemic, where Twitter and Instagram mirror the political organizing of nineteenth-century publications. Without articulating these histories of Black politics, how else can we understand the continuity that remakes places like the Lee memorial into sites of activist change? Can our classrooms embody a spirit of equity without centering similar practices?
Thinking with Hartman and Spires, I approached my class with this general objective: to avoid extending the monumental racism of the past, my teaching must at least expose the limits of the white imaginary. Such work means more than merely including counternarratives to white supremacy in assigned texts. Rather, I would make BIPOC conceptions of subjectivity the organizing principle of what I taught. That didn’t mean abandoning the Declaration of Independence, Moby Dick, or Emerson’s abolitionist writing. But it did mean centering their contemporaneous critics, to celebrate the voices who rejected white authority and as a result remain peripheral in the U.S. historical narrative.
There are so many options of writers of color from the start of the nineteenth century that specifically attacked white power brokers, including Jefferson, for their hypocrisy. One favorite of mine is David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, which offers a line-by-line evisceration of Thomas Jefferson’s vision of citizenship and Blackness. Before reading Melville’s voyages of the Pequod in Moby Dick, I teach the essays of Pequot tribal member William Apess. Apess wrote critically of Christian violence to Native tribes, settlers’ betrayal of treaties, and the subsequent theft of tribal lands. When approaching abolitionist writing, I demonstrate, as Hartman instructs, how we can excavate kernels of truth from the white woman who transcribed Sojourner Truth’s Narrative—while also showing how white values of respectability shape what we receive.
At the end of the semester, my students wrote that reading the U.S. antebellum canon through this lens told a different story about the antebellum era they were expecting from a literature class. Though rewriting syllabi to focus first on the historic critiques of Black and Indigenous thinkers may not seem radical, it remains imperative for these reasons: For one, centering syllabi around BIPOC critiques encourages students to reimagine the knowledge they’ve inherited, which too often positions white, Eurocentric thought as a neutral baseline. More importantly, starting from Black and Indigenous perspectives demonstrates the possibilities of politics beyond white assumptions. Otherwise, our work participates in fetishizing the very structures we profess to critique. As scholars of Black and Indigenous Studies have shown in excruciating detail, history is thick with such texts and opportunities. We must use them.
When I remember marching down Monument Avenue last summer, what stands out most is the way mutual aid, organizing, and community education—practices about which Spires and Hartman speak—reclaimed space from a white oppressor to serve the needs of a community in crisis. It was politics at work, but it was also just a part of people’s everyday lives. On one visit, I watched two young Black women pose on the steps of the Lee monument, dressed as Wakandan Dora Milaje, perhaps for a graduation photo; beneath them, a portrait of Breonna Taylor. Later that month, activists had placed placards with photos of Black men and women killed at the hands of police in the past decade alone. One of the first I saw commemorated Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old man murdered by police in Oakland on January 1, 2009. Now I live in Oakland again, 12 years after Grant’s murder. The station where he died has been unofficially renamed in his honor, just as the activists renamed the traffic circle around the Lee monument after Marcus David Peters, an 18-year-old Black Richmonder murdered by police. 3,000 miles might separate California from Virginia, but antiblackness flattens the space between them.
To me, a course on the nineteenth century would feel incomplete if not connecting with these recent losses and uprisings. This is the world in which our students live, where a resurgent white supremacy is clearer than ever. As we reckoned this Spring with a white insurrection against the U.S. Congress, violence against the AAPI community exploded across major cities, especially San Francisco. It felt incumbent on me to adapt, to draw connections between anti-Black racism and the anti-Asian hate of white San Francisco settlers well before the Chinese Exclusion Act. This is the unchanging atmosphere of violence against people of color that our classrooms need to confront. Otherwise, we will fail to help students understand the violent conditions of their everyday lives.
That’s why teaching histories of everyday resistance is so powerful: it focuses on all the ways that people have resisted each iteration of white supremacist violence, rather than merely pointing out that such violence saturates U.S. history. More importantly, everyday practices re-draw the lines from the past to the present and celebrate traditions of resistance and endurance. In learning from what endures, our classes can imagine a citizenship based on justice, not assimilation to whiteness. We can return to these monumental sites of the past—whether they be texts or histories, or the classroom itself—to emphasize how classroom encounters with sites of trauma can encourage more targeted forms of activism now. Bringing this perspective to the class can encourage our students to imagine material pathways towards equity and healing. That’s something our teaching can model: to show how everyday practices can convert a reckoning with the past toward imagining a truly equitable future. It’s a goal to which we can all reach, no matter our disciplining.
Will Clark is an Assistant Professor of English at San Francisco State University. He works in queer studies, U.S. Literature, and U.S. legal history; his writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, ASAP/J, Nineteenth Century Literature, and other venues. He lives in Oakland, CA.