FSU faculty hosts week-long Black Lives Matter teach-in

Psychology Professor Robert Martin did a group experience with his students about privilege and inequality. (Photo by Jennifer Johnson)

In honor of Black History Month, FSU professors are currently engaged in a Black Lives Matter teach in across campus.

According to sociology professor and co-creator of FSU’s Black Lives Matter teach in Virginia Rutter, over 200 classes from 33 different disciplines are participating in the weeklong event. In an email, Rutter said the teach in would include over 2,000 students.

Departments involved in the teach in include Communication Arts, Fashion, Sociology, Biology, Physics and Criminology.

The Black Lives Matter movement was founded by activists Opal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza “in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin decision, as a corrective to the sense, made sharper and sharper with multiple cases of shootings, that black lives don’t matter,” according to an informational sheet for the University’s teach in.

Additionally, according to the informational sheet, over 102 unarmed African-Americans have been killed in 2015 alone.

President F. Javier Cevallos said in an email, “As a university, I think the teach in idea is exactly the way to proceed: have an open and honest conversation about the events and the effect they have on us. By tying the diverse issues to different academic disciplines, we all learn how wide the impact they have on society. I am really thankful to the faculty that came up with the idea and to all who decided to incorporate the topic in their courses.”

He added a university is a “place to exchange ideas” and discuss issues facing society. “We are not an isolated institution, but part of a vibrant community, and it is important to provide opportunities to talk about what is happening in our nation.”

Sean Huddleston, chief officer of diversity, inclusion & community engagement, said in an email he believes the teach in will be significantly beneficial to FSU.

He added the teach in has opened a campus-wide conversation on “contemporary social activism. The fact that over 90 faculty members from a multitude of academic disciplines found ways to connect discussions about the Black Lives Matter movement to their course content is remarkable, but also underscores the importance of intentional dialogue about equity and social justice. The classroom is one of the most effective spaces to have this dialogue, so I am pleased that the teach in came together so well.”

Professor Xavier Guadalupe-Diaz tied the Black Lives Matter movement into his class The Culture of Punishment by discussing mass incarceration.

He asked his students to create a pyramid that reflects the foundations of mass incarceration. Some phrases included in the pyramid are “systemic racism,” “targeting people of color [POC]” and “social inequality.”

According to Guadalupe-Diaz, mass incarceration starts with the imprisonment of African-Americans for non-violent crimes.

“The American public is a very punitive, and pretty restrictive, kind of populace that we like to be tough on crime. … Why is it that we are like that? Who informed us to be that way?”

The media is used to manipulate public opinion, said Guadalupe-Diaz, and in this case American citizens were fed images of inner-city African-Americans in connection to crack cocaine.

This is when terms such as “welfare queen,” “crack whore” and “crack baby” were created. “All these things were highly racialized. They were sexist and they were patriarchal,” said Guadalupe-Diaz.

“We make up this narrative that blacks are using crack cocaine – that they’re responsible for crack-related violence in inner cities,” he said, adding the whole narrative ends up being a “farce.”

A result of this, Guadalupe-Diaz said, is society has changed the way information is shared, and citizens rely more on social networks for our news. “You get to see stories that mainstream media doesn’t pick up, and that shows a pattern in televised news.”

One student said when Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in August 2014, she did not find out through the news – she found out on Tumblr and Twitter.

“It didn’t come from a news source,” she said. “It was straight from people.”

Guadalupe-Diaz said that is how the Black Lives Matter movement started – through Twitter and other social media platforms.

He added Black Lives Matter leaders are being monitored, and that it is not unusual for the American government to keep tabs on social movements.

One student said every movement is a result of “people being tired.” She added the Black Lives Matter movement is a result of people witnessing black lives “not mattering.”

Another student said there have been far too many cases of African-American men being shot by police in the news. “How are you going to incarcerate so many black people for these little petty things,” she said, and not punish the “people who are actually taking lives?”

Guadalupe-Diaz said America “leads the world in police-involved homicides,” and “police are more likely to shoot unarmed non-white suspects than armed white suspects.”

Senior Dale Schremser said it was “great” to learn about the Black Lives Matter movement in class “instead of looking on social media.”

Nick Applebee, a senior, said the movement “fit in really well with what we were talking about in this class overall.”

Junior Kenetra Hinkins said, “I think people hear Black Lives Matter and kind of think one way about the movement, and they only think about media portrayal. This kind of broke it down to what it really is.”

Guadalupe-Diaz said since his class is about mass incarceration, they have to address systemic racism regularly. However, “Today gave us a chance to make a direct connection to BLM which is something we have not done yet. I thought it was really valuable.”

Vandana Singh, associate professor and chair of the physics and earth sciences department, started her Principles of Physics II class by discussing climate change. She then asked the students to think about how it could correlate to racism.

She said there is a notion that if something doesn’t affect you, it doesn’t matter. “[Climate change] is going to affect all of us, but the people that are going to be affected the most and first are the people who are in the tropics or people of color or people who are poor.”

Singh referenced the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as an example of “environmental racism.” She added after the hurricane, public school systems were privatized, which affected poorer communities. Those communities were also the last people to receive aid.

Charles Elkhoury, a junior, said, “The damaging effects on those who don’t have power and privilege appear to not affect those who do, but in the end, it always comes around.”

Singh said the reason why she decided to link this lesson plan as a part of the Black Lives Matter teach in is because she thinks “at least we can devote one 50-minute class” to the issue.

Singh asked students to read articles for class, including one about environmental racism. She said companies have to find places to dump waste products, and often target poorer communities where the residents don’t have the power or time to protest.

Another professor who participated in the teach in was Niall Stephens, professor of communication arts whose Cultural Aspects of Media Representation class discussed current events in pop culture in relation to Black Lives Matter.

The students were asked to get into small groups and discuss Beyoncé’s new song “Formation” as well as the implications of her newly-released music video.

Specifically, he wanted students to discuss the idea that people like Beyoncé “just can’t let America heal [and] keep ripping off the historical Band-Aid.” This is just one of the opinions which was expressed in the media following her Super Bowl halftime performance.

Stephens pointed out there is a dilemma surrounding race because it is socially constructed. “This is something that is made up. And when we talk about it, which I do think we need to do, which is why we are doing it in this class and in the community, I think we want to talk about it in a way in which we are not reproducing the problem.”

Sophomore Laura Brathwaite said her favorite quote is, “’The new racism is the denial of racism.’ … When people say that racism doesn’t exist anymore, it’s almost like they’re just so ignorant. … When people say they don’t see color it’s like, ‘Yes, you do.’”

Sophomore Christine Connolly said, “I wish the school had more events like this. I don’t like that it’s just during February because it’s Black History Month. It should be year-round.”

Senior Tremain Bell added, “ It’s important that people understand black lives do matter. And again, like we always talk about in class, it’s not that we are saying black lives are more important than white lives, or any other lives. We are just saying that our lives matter because it seems like no one else thinks they matter much right now.”

Professor Bryan Connolly began his Plant Physiology class by introducing the Black Lives Matter movement and why he chose to integrate it into his lesson plan.

Connolly said, “I’m interested in the social uplift of any group of people. I consider myself a person of the world.

“I am here not to just collect a paycheck. We [professors] aren’t here just to make a living – we want to make the world a better place. I hope [the students] are here for more than just [their] degree.

He joined the teach in to show students “people who have helped other people.”

According to Connolly, most people would not think of plants as “a tool for social change,” but that plants are “a fundamental building block” of all human life.

Connolly focused his lecture on two important figureheads in the agricultural community who also had connections to important “racial change” movements – Dr. George Washington Carver and Dr. Wangari Maathi.

George Washington Carver was born into slavery and when slavery was abolished, his former masters raised him as their son. He eventually became the first black student to receive a Ph.D. from Iowa State.

Connolly said Carver was instrumental in “changing the lives of black Africans in the south.” Carver promoted the education of black Africans in the late 1800’s.

He explained to students Carver wanted to teach self-sufficiency to black students. Carver created the Jessup wagon, a mobile agricultural school that traveled around the South educating black Americans about farming and agriculture.

Carver was one of the first black men to testify in front of Congress when he spoke in support of a tariff on peanut imports from China.

The importation took jobs away from southern African farmers, according to Connolly.

Dr. Wangari Maathi, the founder of the Green Belt Movement and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, spearheaded economic and social change for women in Kenya.

At one point, Maathi had to leave Kenya because her radical political and social opinions resulted in her being added to a list of citizens the government planned to assassinate, according to Connolly.

He added Maathi, with assistance from the United Nations, was able to implement a program in which Kenyan women would be paid a stipend for planting and growing trees. The money they collected from this went toward other business opportunities and helped stimulate the economy of Kenya.

Kenya suffered from floods, droughts and deforestation for years, and with this program, Kenyan women were able to “revitalize the countryside.”

Connolly said this allowed for an “economic uplift of Kenyan women.”

Although Maathi and Carver were not directly related to the topics in the Plant Physiology class, Connolly said, “An overarching theme I teach about is the connection between human interaction and plants.”

Connolly was involved in the teach in to raise awareness about the Black Lives Matter movement. “If I can help, why not? This is an act of solidarity that can help. I do have a different perspective of race. My mother is Asian and I grew up in a very white part of Vermont.

“These things shouldn’t be happening in this day and age. We’re not just here to get an education or do our jobs. We’re here to learn and explore our personal boundaries.”

Another professor involved in the teach in was Psychology Professor and former interim President Robert Martin, who wanted to simulate a feeling of privilege and inequality during an in-class demonstration.

He split the students into small groups, and asked them to create a list of psychology terms they had studied and to outline the relationships among all of the terms.

He then asked that students design a mobile on which these terms would appear. The group which made the best mobile would supposedly receive ten bonus points on the next exam, according to Martin, to create incentive.

The students were unaware of the simulation.   

Martin said, “The main thrust of the exercise is that each of the bags that the groups are getting have different amounts of resources in them. One group is getting a bag that is rich in resources – more construction paper, more dowels.”

He added, “It’s essentially setting up a condition of privilege or racism and looking at how people respond to that and how it makes them feel.”

According to Martin, “I would predict, or what I’m hoping to see, is that the groups who see themselves as poor in resources will have some resentment of the group that is rich in resources.”

As the groups began crafting their projects and were given their allotted supplies, Martin asked one student from each group to walk around the room and take a look at what everyone was given.

Freshman Patrick Condon said, “What? Why do they get all of those supplies? That’s not fair.” His group had been given limited resources. The other students walking throughout the room agreed with Condon, aside from the ‘privileged’ group.

Junior Tess Gorman was part of the group which received an abundance of resources. After observing other groups, she said, “I feel pretty good about our mobile. I think we’re doing well with what we’ve been given.”

Martin gave students approximately half of the class time to plan and construct their mobiles. However, when the “privileged” group was nearly finished, he informed the rest of the class that the time to build their mobiles was over.

The class then spoke up as a whole and voiced their disapproval. After all the groups were given a chance to voice their opinions, Martin informed the class about the simulation he had set up.

According to freshman Megan Lepore, “While working, the groups noticed the supplies given to each group were unequal, which infuriated my group and most of the class. We felt we had to work harder just to be equal to their project and it was not our fault we were given less supplies.”

Lepore added, “I think this relates to the inequalities that African-Americans have faced because they have been discriminated against – something that they cannot control – and feel they have to try harder to feel socially accepted and not labeled by stereotypes.“

Martin said, “The whole point of this was to simulate – that is to create – a situation where each of us could consider what it feels like to be presented with a task where the deck is uneven.”

Gorman said, “I think the exercise was really effective in showing prejudice in a classroom setting. Even though it was over supplies for a project, we could see how prejudice prevailed.”

She added, “Since my group had all the supplies, we really didn’t see a problem because we were at the advantage, whereas some groups thought it was unfair because they had less than we did.”

Desmond McCarthy, professor and chair of the English department, spoke about the Black Lives Matter movement in his Modern American Fiction class in relation to a short story the class read.

The book assigned was “Cane” by Jean Toomer, and the short story the class discussed, “Blood-Burning Moon,” was about an African-American woman who is pursued by a white male whose ancestors were slaveholders, and by an African-American man who is burned to death after fighting and killing the white man.

McCarthy prefaced the discussion with information on lynching and how it is an extra-judicial punishment by a mob which hung or burned people. “It’s a way of exerting social control, of spreading fear,” he said, adding sometimes they would be great public events.

The Tuskegee Institute’s research found from 1880 to 1951, 3,446 African-Americans were lynched, along with 1,297 whites. However, McCarthy said this report does not account for people of other ethnicities, including Latinos and immigrants, who were lynched.

McCarthy said, “It’s a form of social control to send a message of violence so immediately and to have the entire community involved.”

The Ku Klux Klan played a significant role in perpetrating violence against African-Americans, and was responsible for many of the lynchings which occurred, according to McCarthy. They targeted leaders in the African-American community who were seen as powerful, along with Jews, Catholics and immigrants. He said by the 1920s, one estimate is that approximately 15 percent of people in the U.S. were part of the group.

He added, “It’s amazing how much of African-American literature was largely ignored throughout history.”

Jean Toomer’s “Cane” was considered a major text of the Harlem Renaissance, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that the American public started taking a second look at it, along with works by other African-American authors, like Zora Neale Hurston, which often fell into obscurity, according to McCarthy.

He then explained how the Black Lives Matter movement started in 2013 in response to the acquittal of “self-styled community watchman” George Zimmerman for killing of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American boy.

“It’s basically saying that up to this moment in history, there are occasions where black lives are valued less than white lives,” said McCarthy, emphasizing that the movement is not saying that no other ethnicities matter, but their goal is to bring attention to how “black lives matter, too.”

He said, “There is really a sense that there is an inequality in the judicial system and political system and that African-Americans are treated much more harshly.” A number of national incidents involving young African-Americans who have died in police custody or at the hands of police officers have further sparked the movement, including the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray.

Senior Lauren Hayes said, “I think this, also, is very relevant because I have heard people who have referred to the killing of these people as contemporary lynchings, because it’s the idea that someone is taking the power of justice into their own hands and deciding, ‘I think this person committed a crime, so I’m going to punish them the way I see fit without going to individual, institutional justice.’”

In her Gender Across Cultures class, Anthropology Professor Brandi Lyn Cutler incorporated Black Lives Matter into her class by discussing the often-marginalized work of African-American anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston.

Cutler asked her students to view a portion of filmmaker Byron Hurt’s documentary, “I am Man: Black Masculinity in America.” After the short screening, the class engaged in a discussion of the material.

Megan Fuller, a senior, said every student has something he or she can glean from the Black Lives Matter teach in.

“This isn’t just a social issue, something sociologists should be concerned about – it’s something everyone needs to be concerned about and involved in,” Fuller said.

Jackson Stevens, a sophomore, said the teach in is an important experience for the FSU community as it raises awareness regarding the issues facing students of color. These issues, Stevens said, often go unnoticed by white students.

Although the University has held many Diversity Dialogues at which important issues are discussed with students, faculty and members of the administration, Stevens said he believed those events are not reaching enough people.

FSU’s Black Lives Matter teach in, he said, would expose a large number of students to a topic they would normally never contemplate.

Though he sees the teach in as a success, he said he worries what will happen after the month of February concludes.

“What will happen when Black History Month ends and the impact of [the teach in] fades away?” he asked.

“What will the University do, and what will we as students do? That’s what I’m most excited and nervous about,” he added.

Andrew Mades, a senior, described the teach in as “the most constructive way” to reach students who don’t believe the Black Lives Matter movement is important “and try to convince them to change their views.”

Mades added it’s important to create an environment on campus in which students with opposing views can have a “constructive dialogue and not be attacked.”

Cutler said prior to this week, she had thought of the different types of opinions students would have about the teach in and how it might be impossible to avoid offending some white students.

“You do have to make some people uncomfortable,” Cutler said. “Black people are forced to be uncomfortable all the time.”

[Editor’s Note: Desmond McCarthy is the advisor to The Gatepost.]

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