DECEMBER 3, 2015
DUCHESS HARRIS had just returned to Macalester College from a yearlong sabbatical when Ferguson changed everything. Many of her students in Intro to African Studies and Race and Law had never even heard of the city in St. Louis County until officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, killing him in the street. Brown’s death provoked different interpretations of culpability, knotted up in power structures, poverty, and inequality.
“We couldn’t be in these classes not talking about what happened,” she said.
A few weeks ago, at Garrison Keillor’s Common Good Books store on the periphery of the Macalester campus, Harris recounted those first few weeks of classes to a crowd of more than 50 people. How, she wondered, could she clarify for her students that the images they were seeing of tear-gassed protestors and busted storefronts were grounded in a historical legacy of race relations that has haunted this country for generations. “We started having discussions,” she said, “and I asked them, ‘How did you do this in high school?’ they said, ‘We didn’t talk about this in high school.’”
She emphasized that these were students from all over the world, and that Macalester has students from every state in the US. “I asked my friend who’s a math professor here, ‘Do you get any students who haven’t taken Algebra?’”
After Ferguson, after the death of Freddie Gray in a police van and the riots it spurred in Baltimore, “You heard kids asking, ‘Is this the first time this is happening? Why are they angry?’” She said. “You heard parents asking too.”
Harris’s answer is Black Lives Matter, co-written with Sue Bradford Edwards specifically for middle and high schoolers, and for all the students that Harris might one day have — for those who see the riots in the streets, but don’t know the history behind the rage.
Black Lives Matter explores the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, and the treatment of African Americans by authorities, within a historical framework that begins with the Declaration of Independence and the 1857 Dred Scott decision. These founding documents of our nation held that all African Americans — enslaved or not — could not be US citizens. She draws parallels from the institutionalized racism in America’s founding power structures to post-Civil War discrimination, the Civil Rights Movement, and the War On Drugs. The 1991 police beating of Rodney King and the ensuing Los Angeles riots; the shooting of Renisha McBride by a Detroit neighbor; and the death of Jason Harrison, a young boy with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder who was shot by a Dallas police officer in June 2014, are therefore all eruptions of a historical legacy that has haunted the United States since its founding.
The sections are short and blunt. Each chapter is peppered with sidebars that explain Fourth-Amendment rights against illegal search and seizure, Grand Juries, and “Stand-Your-Ground” laws. Movements like “Say Her Name” are also included, which bring the lives of black girls and women into conversations dominated by the persecution of black men. The book even contains a glossary of words like “indictment” and “acquittal.”
Each section presents a different nuance of the racial inequalities that plague modern America. The section on the War On Drugs, for example, recounts the 2004 arrests of Richard Thomas and Tim Carter in Florida on drug possession charges that occurred three months apart. Carter, white, had been caught with cocaine on his body. He had no prior offenses on his record, admitted to being an addict, and was sent to rehab rather than prison. Thomas, black, was caught with a crack pipe that had crack residue on it. He had no prior offenses, admitted to being an addict, and got five years in prison.
She concedes that it’s heavy subject matter for kids, and admits, “I didn’t grow up having these conversations with my parents either.” Harris is African American, and grew up in a middle class family outside of Boston and in Hartford, Connecticut. “I didn’t know anyone in prison growing up,” she said in her office, several days after the talk at Common Good Books. “I didn’t even know someone who knew someone in prison. Now, how could you not?”
While earning her law degree, Harris spent one Friday a month at the Minnesota Correctional Facility — Shakopee, for women, about a 40-minute drive from St. Paul. Since 1973, the number of inmates there has grown by 825 percent, largely due to crackdowns on minor drug offenses. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, drug arrests of African Americans in Minnesota grew 500 percent during the 1980s.
“Because of mass incarceration, men have all but disappeared in many communities,” she said. “You have a generation of kids that are fortunate if only one parent is incarcerated.”
The book is named after the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, started in 2012 by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi following the shooting of Trayvon Martin. The authors don’t mention the organization by name however until page 67, and rarely after that. None of the founders of BLM were interviewed for the book. The intention seems clear: Black Lives Matter is written less as a primer for the movement of the same name, and more as a way to frame it as a continuation of the 20th-century Civil Rights Movement.
“People critical of Black Lives Matter don’t understand the Civil Rights Movement,” Harris said.
Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison, who wrote the introduction for the book, begins by acknowledging critics of the movement.
Some, who have a weak understanding of history, are quick with the rejoinder: ‘All lives matter!’ Of course they do. But some lives are systematically targeted by law enforcement officers more than others, some lives are ignored by a legal system which claims to dispense equal justice, and some lives have been relegated to poverty, high unemployment, and a lack of opportunity. That extra special treatment is reserved for certain lives; far too often, it’s black lives.
The most vocal criticism the book has received so far came shortly after one of Harris’s first interviews about it in late August of this year, on the Twin Cities Public Television program “Almanac.” Days later, Fox News’s Fox and Friends Weekend invited conservative radio host Larry Elder on the program to discuss the yet- unpublished book and decry that it was “Indoctrinating young kids.” Notably, Elder had not read anything but the book’s cover. Regardless, he went on to argue that it would alienate white kids with guilt, frame African-American kids as victims, and glaze over the responsibility of the African-American community for large-scale incarceration and the achievement gap between white and minority students.
Having not read the book, Harris acknowledges that Elder was “raging at the idea of it. Resistance is included in the book. The message is not: These are just things that happen to us.”
She also adds that the big take away from reading it should not be paralyzing guilt, but real-life material.
“White students are allies, what we’re trying to start is a better conversation. I don’t think a white girl should come away from it crying because she feels personally guilty about Trayvon Martin.”
Keith Hardy, head of the St. Paul School Board and Harris’s guest speaker at Common Good Books, put it this way: “We had 1,000 suspensions in St. Paul public schools last year. Ninety percent were black and Native American. We need Black Lives Matter to create space to talk about the value of our black students’ lives.”
BLM also faces challenges from those who perceive it as anti-police; Harris knows it will be a challenge to get the children and relatives of police officers to come around to the book.
“I had a black student from Detroit in one of my classes, and her dad is a cop,” Harris said. “In discussions she would always argue, ‘Well, my dad keeps the neighborhood safe.’”
This conflict between appreciating and checking law-enforcement is particularly complicated, Harris said. “Because it comes down to different ideas and experiences of what ‘America’ is.”
Beyond the book and a curriculum that incorporates the movement, Harris is not actively engaged in Black Lives Matter protests or meetings. Just days before I interviewed her at her office, she had tried to take six students from her race and law class, one of whom was black, to a meeting of BLM activists advertised as a space for people of color to share their voices. She called in advance to get confirmation they could come, but on arrival, they were told they wouldn’t be allowed in.
Her biggest gripe about the whole experience was that they should have been told this in the first place. “I’m from the East Coast, what they did was so Minnesotan,” she joked. “To say: ‘Actually, this is really only for people of color but we can’t explicitly say that,’ after we’d driven all the way out there? We would have just written on the flyer, ‘no white people.’” She turned the experience into a class discussion on access, and what it’s like to realize you’re not welcome everywhere.
Her husband ran in the Twin Cities Marathon that was threatened to be shutdown by local BLM activists; she was at a governor’s speech at Macalester that was interrupted by them. She understands their actions can be inconvenient and uncomfortable and that this is the point.
“Many of their [BLM’s] moves are right out of Dr. King’s book, the peaceful protests, in very visible, public spaces, being carried out by everyday people.” Harris said that countering BLM with “All Lives Matter” is not adding much to the conversation. She reiterates what the BLM founders have repeatedly said: “Of course all lives matter.” She picked up the Black Lives Matter book. “But it’s 2015. These things are still happening.”
In just the last few weeks, her daughter’s all-girls charter school, Laura Jeffrey Academy, has committed to purchasing the book to be used in history and social studies courses. Florissant Public Libraries will carry it, and Hardy proposed bringing it to middle and high schools in the city of St. Paul to the St. Paul School Board. Michael Walker, head of the Minneapolis School District’s 15-month-old Office of Black Male Student Achievement, has also met with Harris to get in on the first wave of adopting the book for classes at Minneapolis public schools by the end of January.
Harris is now at work with another professor at Macalester to create a curriculum around the book, and has been in talks with schools in New York, California, and even Egypt about purchasing it.
Taking final questions from the audience during her talk at Common Good Books, Harris responded soberly that publishing something like this now is particularly difficult not just because of the Larry Elders, but because it lacks the distance of time to soften the impact. The deaths are not far from our collective memories; the scenes accompanying them are still fresh.
She picked up the book. “This includes 112 pages of murder over the last three years,” she said. “This shouldn’t be a book. We shouldn’t be able to say, ‘Oh if we had published one month later we could have included Sandra Bland.’”
“It’s difficult, it’s a lot to unpack. We’re writing about history as it happens.”