Over the past few years, reports of police brutality against black Americans—and the resulting Black Lives Matter movement—have galvanized different people in different ways. For American Studies professor Duchess Harris, that meant writing a textbook aimed at middle and high schoolers. "I live in Minnesota, so I have lots of white friends who have come up to me and said, 'How do we explain this to our kids?'" explains Harris, who is black and teaches at Macalester University in St. Paul. Her book, Black Lives Matter, which comes out in November, was her answer. The book covers politically important police shootings of black Americans over the last three years, including Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, and Michael Brown. It also includes chapters on African-American history, and the United States' racially motivated War on Drugs.
Black Lives Matter gained notoriety earlier this week, when Fox & Friends aired a segment slamming it. During the program, guest Larry Elder said, "It's indoctrinating young kids, teaching them that black people are victims and, by the way, you, as white people, ought to feel really, really guilty about it."
When I called Harris to discuss her book, she pointed out that nothing like Black Lives Matter exists for teachers or parents. The book is as good a place to start as any for an important discussion that every American kid needs to have.
For whom did you write this book?
It's written at an eighth-grade level. We're pitching it to sixth to 12th grade.
But you're thinking of adapting some of this material to make lectures for your undergraduate students, right?
One of the reasons why I was inspired to work on this project is that I taught Introduction to African American Studies last fall and the course started three weeks after Ferguson had happened. So I go into the classroom and try to have conversations, and it's very difficult for the students to talk about these things. I had lots of first-year students. I just asked them, "How did you manage this in high school?" They said, "You know, we didn't talk about these things in high school."
Now, Macalester has students from almost all 50 states. We have students from more than 80 countries. And they were at a loss on how to have a conversation about this. For me, it made it really difficult.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that students show up in my courses with so much less than what they've had in other subject matters. I would laugh with my friends that are in the math department and say, "Never in your life have you had a student who showed up who didn't have algebra."
Why is it useful to have a textbook, rather than giving kids a bunch of contemporary newspaper and magazine articles to read?
I'll give you a perfect example: Let's say there are some children who are frightened because they're watching television and they're seeing all this upheaval. So their question is, "Why are these people angry?" You can have educated parents that are willing to have a conversation, that will say something like, "They're upset because the police officer, Mr. Darren Wilson, wasn't indicted." What does the word "indictment" mean to a seventh grader? There are grown people who don't know what "indictment" means, right?
You can be a precocious 11th grader and say, "I'm going to read about this" in the Atlantic or the Nation. That doesn't mean it's broken down for you. If it's not broken down for you, depending on whom you've been exposed to, it's very easy to get agitated, and then people get very upset.
Yet I can imagine these events appearing in a history book in 30 years from now and it not being controversial. No matter your opinion about how to interpret these events, they're certainly historically important.
My Ph.D. is in American Studies. An interesting difference between us and the historians is that the historians will teach something that was extremely inflammatory at the time, but we're far away from it now. They don't get the kind of heat that I get. I think to myself, "What could be more provocative than, say, the Holocaust?" But we have enough distance that people are like, "Oh, OK, we can talk about that."
Is this a book for non-black American kids only?
This is useful for kids of all backgrounds, but often, black parents have a different skill set that is informed by a lived experience. My husband's black. We have three kids. Our kids see how we are treated. They see how they are treated. Not as much needs to be translated, right?
But I live in Minnesota, so I have lots of white friends who have come up to me and said, "How do we explain this to our kids?"
Do you know if many schools have pre-ordered this book?
I know the entire St. Paul school district is considering adopting it. My daughter's school, Laura Jeffrey Academy, is definitely using it.
I just said to them in passing, "Maybe you'd like to use it in seventh and eighth grade social science." I wanted to make a contribution to the community that I live in and see my kids' generation do this better than other generations have. They've decided that the whole school is going to read it.