Why Frank Leon Roberts’s College Course On Black Lives Matter Is So Important

“This is the story of America.”

October 11, 2016
Why Frank Leon Roberts’s College Course On Black Lives Matter Is So Important Baton Rouge, Louisiana   Mark Wallheiser / Getty Images

In the summer of 2014, Mike Brown was killed by police in his hometown of Ferguson, Missouri. The shooting was not the first time a black person met their death at the hands of an officer of the law, nor would it be the last. But there was something about that day in August, the community of Ferguson, and the wider social and political climate that inspired the global movement now known as Black Lives Matter. In the years since, BLM has become one of the most important social justice organizations in recent history; its momentum and effective digital organizing have radically shaped the contemporary conversation about race and society. It's also pressured politicians and media entities into acknowledging the pervasive systemic racism that activists are fighting against.

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Still, despite its formidable work, there are many misconceptions about what exactly BLM is and what it hopes to accomplish, says New York University professor Frank Leon Roberts. To that end, Roberts is teaching "The Black Lives Matter Movement," a course at NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study designed to offer students the context and tools with which to understand BLM. Roberts is also hoping to extend that dialogue beyond the classroom. He's made the course's syllabus — which centers current voices over established scholars — available to the public as an educational resource. Soon after the beginning of the semester, Roberts spoke to The FADER about his class and why Black Lives Matter is a movement affecting every American.


Tell me about the genesis of the course. Why is it important?

Kind of simply, this class was designed as an intervention. We are in a moment of national crisis. As we approach the end of the nation's first black presidency, our timelines are inundated daily with conversations about racial strife and racial injustice in America, and people are looking for resources. People are looking for ways to think on 30-second media soundbites. I think academia is a good place to do that. For all the bad things about academia — and there are many — one of the things that is good about undergraduate education is that it provides people an opportunity to actually engage ideas, which is not something that, in mainstream media, people are really willing to do in a thoughtful way.

This class was an attempt to actually give people some toolkits for thinking about this movement that has gotten so much attention. Really, when you scratch at the surface, there's still very basic questions that people have, like, "What is BLM? What do they want? How did they get here? What's the future?" So this class was designed as an intervention because there's a tremendous amount of misinformation in terms of the public perception of Black Lives Matter. You have people who don't know what the movement is, and so this is my attempt to have students be able to spend 14 weeks answering the questions, "What are the priorities of this movement? Who are its key players? What are the key priorities? How is this a story about America at the end of the age of Obama?"

As you mentioned, we tend to process things as mainstream soundbites. It's also really easy to surround yourself with information that reinforces your existing beliefs. How much challenging is happening in your classroom?

A lot of challenging. The classroom itself in the context of this course is much broader than what it traditionally is. It's difficult because very often people's perception of BLM has nothing to do with what actual members of the movement have said about themselves. Instead, they are relying on what third- or fourth-party sources or media sources have said about the movement. There are several classes across the country that are touting themselves as courses on Black Lives Matter, but when you look at the actual syllabi for those courses, it's mostly reading material from people who were publishing long before there was a Black Lives Matter movement.

What I'm getting at is that what is different about this class is that it actually centers the voices of organizers, of people who have been central to the movement. So they are actually studying what Alicia Garza, one of the founders of BLM, has said about the movement. That's important because far too often when it comes to conversations about what is Black Lives Matter, people answer that question based on what they've heard on news shows, or what they assumed. Even though Black Lives Matter touts itself as a leader-free movement, the fact of the matter is there have been voices who've been representative of the ethos of BLM and in this class, we pay attention to those voices. I think that's the best way to actually understand how Black Lives Matter sees itself: not how the world sees it, but rather how the movement sees itself.

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Why Frank Leon Roberts’s College Course On Black Lives Matter Is So Important Baton Rouge, Louisiana   Mark Wallheiser / Getty Images

A lot of academia is focused on exploring moments in the past. How did you go about determining an appropriate syllabus for a course situated in the present?

There's a lot of stuff that we don't get to cover that I wish we did. Like, I wish we were able to spend much more time talking about the global dimensions of BLM; I wanted to do a whole week on Black Lives Matter’s relationship to Israel and the Israel-Palestine debate, which has become a really contentious conversation. In terms of what made it onto the syllabus and how I determined the material, I basically wanted students to be able to leave the class being able to have a dinner table conversation with their parents, or their friends, or whoever, on three topics: "What is the history of the Black Lives Matter movement? What are the specific demands or legislative concerns of the movement? What are the internal debates happening within the movement?”

With it being so contemporary in focus, that's where I come in really as the lecturer to really provide historical context. For example, when it comes to the Black Lives Matter policy platform, I open up class by talking about the Black Panthers in 1968 Ten-Point Platform, which is in some ways almost identical to the platform of the movement for black lives in 2016. So my job is to help the students understand that our current moment is informed by historical precedents.

Now that it's your second year teaching it, how has the course changed? What have you learned?

[The movement] has become much more populist, you know. From Beyoncé to Colin Kaepernick, Black Lives Matter is now populist in nature. It's something that has become almost trendy, so we spend a lot of time talking about that because that's a challenge. And in some ways, it's a problem. We talk about the co-optation of resistance: how, even Colin Kaepernick, something that started as a disruptive gesture, now all of sudden lands him on the cover of TIME magazine. You can almost imagine Nike getting ready to produce T-shirts with him kneeling, right?

Social justice, over the past few years especially, has become "trendy." What do you think about the direction of that change?

Well, it's not trendy or cool for the people who have lost their loved ones, who are taking to the streets with these hashtags as memorials. I'm kind of constantly reminding students that these hashtags — whether it be #AltonSterling, #TrayvonMartin, #SayHerName — are all memorials. They're prayers, really, for forgotten voices, people who have been executed by the state, at least in the eyes of the loved ones of these fallen people. And so we talk about not only the populism of BLM but the populism of all social protest movements over the course of the past seven years. I mean, Occupy was also a "trendy" movement. It was kind of sexy and trendy; the Tea Party was also kind of sexy and trendy.

In the age of social media, resistance and political organizing has become trendy. That's where Barack Obama actually enters the conversation because one of the things that made Barack Obama different as a president is his background as a community organizer. It led to a newfound fascination with community organizers. Community organizers have always been around but part of what Obama did was actually make the role of the community organizer something that people actually stand up and pay attention to. And so that's a part of this story, too, in terms of why these social protest movements have now become populist in nature.

“There are no membership caps on who can actually be interested in doing the work of social justice or learning about how this movement has implications for every single American.”
Why Frank Leon Roberts’s College Course On Black Lives Matter Is So Important Charlotte, North Carolina   Sean Rayford / Getty Images
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What were your interactions with the NYU administration like? Did you have to push a little bit?

No! Gallatin [where this course is taught] is a small, liberal arts college within NYU. And the administration was extremely supportive. They've provided me with space to do what I want to. I'm really grateful to NYU for being able to say "yes." They understand that this is a conversation for all students. This is not pushing a political agenda, this is saying, “This story is important to the story of America and the story of American democracy.” And it's also saying that students can't just study Shakespeare and Thoreau or things that happened hundreds of years ago. It's important for them to think critically about the things that are happening today.

NYU is less than 5% black in terms of enrollment. What sort of challenges does that present?

There's a kind of irony in teaching a Black Lives Matter course with a student body that has, I would argue, abysmally low, black student enrollment numbers. And even in the course itself, the class is predominantly white. But one of the things I say to students is that if you’ve ever been to anything organized by Black Lives Matter, you know Black Lives Matter has always been a multi-racial movement. For those of us who were in Ferguson, there were plenty of non-black folks. And so what I say again and again is, “This is the story of America.” And so even though the class is predominantly white, I let folks know this movement can belong to you if you want it to. There are no membership caps on who can actually be interested in doing the work of social justice or learning about how this movement has implications for every single American.

You’ve made the syllabus and information about the course publicly available. What is the aim behind that?

This conversation is important to everybody. One of the challenges with academia is that it provides this space to have a much-needed conversation — and Black Lives Matter is much-needed conversation — but the irony is in order to have access to that space, you need to be able to afford the $65,000 a year it costs to attend NYU. So I really wanted to challenge that and dismantle that and so what I've done is try to make this a public conversation to the extent that I can. I made it public because I realized these conversations are not just important to the 30 students enrolled in the class but it's important to the everyday people who you are in contact with, who are far outside of the academy. What happens often is that these conversations start in the classroom but they end in people's homes. So people are calling their parents to have conversations. Last time I taught [this class] last fall, people would tell me about the Thanksgiving conversations that they were having. They would come home at Thanksgiving and mom and dad had one perspective about Black Lives Matter and they were able to bring in all that they had learned to that point in the classroom and facilitate a dialogue with their family. And that meant being able to say, "OK, mom, go to this website. Here you can find this reading material." That’s why I make it a public resource.

What is the best case scenario for the course? What do you hope will happen?

I really want to make this course fully public in spring 2017. I want to offer the same course in the spring with open enrollment, so it won't be happening at NYU. I'm working out some places where some institutions will provide me with the space and where everyday people, regardless of what their educational level is or what their financial ability to pay, would [enrol]. The reason I think that's important is ‘cause people always ask, “Is it a moment or is it a movement?” Well, in order for moments to be movements, it requires certain kind of commitments. We forget what made the Civil Rights Movement last so long was not simply because the picket signs or the sit-ins at the countertops, it was because of the Freedom Schools tradition, which was young people organizing themselves to have teachings. So for me, this is my way of contributing to that legacy, to say, “Well, one of the ways we can keep this movement alive is by making a commitment to bringing people together to have conversations and dialogues over critical reading material.”

Given that context, what do you imagine the legacy of Black Lives Matter will be?

I think Black Lives Matter has already had an incredible legacy of forcing the nation to have a serious conversation about its defects and blindspots. I think the legacy of Black Lives Matter is that it will have contributed significantly to the development of American democracy. It’s helping America be its best self by pointing to all the places where America currently is not its best self. So I think that's a part of the legacy — and the fact that this came from young people, the fact that this movement came from people who were largely not college-educated will have a huge legacy in terms of showing people that everyday people matter. Not just fancy folk, but that everyday people can change a nation and can change the political and cultural climate of a country.

Why Frank Leon Roberts’s College Course On Black Lives Matter Is So Important