“I Just Expect There To Be Some Trouble”: Boyz N the Hood and Racialization of Cinema Violence
Caetlin Benson-Allott / Georgetown University

Poster for Boyz N The Hood

Original poster for Boyz N The Hood (John Singleton, 1991).

Although there was relatively little cinema violence during the 1980s, the decade nevertheless changed popular perception of such incidents. Between 1979 and 1988, the US media largely forgot their fear of cinema shootings, or rather it was eclipsed by a larger moral panic over gang violence. Gang activity did increase in the US during this period, but media coverage exaggerated and sensationalized the problem, vilifying all African-American youth by association. As a result, reporters and even some reviewers began predicting cinema violence at films by and about African-American men. The 1979 incidents at screenings of The Warriors had been treated as horrific yet isolated episodes — isolated by their association with one inflammatory film. But between 1988 and 1991, a series of films were accused of soliciting violence by soliciting Black viewers. An entire audience group was both courted and criminalized in advance, so that when violent incidents did occur, they provided confirmation bias for further prejudice and disenfranchisement.

Colors (Dennis Hopper, 1988) was the first film to inspire sustained press coverage about the threat of theater violence. Its depiction of gang life in Los Angeles so alarmed the LAPD that they demanded a private screening approximately one month before the film’s release to determine its potential impact. Afterwards, LA Country Sheriff Sargent Wes McBride predicted that the movie would “leave dead bodies from one end of this town to the other… I wouldn’t be the least surprised if a shooting erupted in a movie theater.” [ (( “Deborah Caulfield, “Colors Director Hopper Defends His Movie on LA Gangs,” Los Angeles Times March 25, 1988, Y18; “Gang Movie Colors Will Trigger Violence,” A1.” ))] Colors opened without incident, but unfortunately, ten days later, David Dawson was fatally shot while standing in line for the film outside a theater in Stockton, California. Dawson was a member of the Crips, and his attacker, Charles Van Queen, was a member of the Bloods, a connection that was overplayed in the press to suggest that gang movies weren’t safe.

Scene from Colors

Danny (Sean Penn) evaluates suspected gang members in Colors (Dennis Hopper, 1988).

Not just gang movies, though — even serious dramas about racism and African-American disenfranchisement were critiqued for courting violence. Hence Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) was excoriated in New York Magazine for potentially inciting riots before it even premiered. Reviewer David Denby predicted that Lee’s film would “create an uproar” and warned that “if some audiences go wild, he’s partly responsible,” while columnist Joe Klein expressed hope that the film would open “in not too many theaters near you” because “black audiences” could “react violently” to its depiction of “a summer race riot.” [ (( “David Denby, “He’s Gotta Have It,” review of Do the Right Thing (Universal film), New York Magazine, June 26, 1989, 53, 54; emphasis mine; Joe Klein, “The City Politic: Spiked?” New York Magazine, June 26, 1989, 14.” ))] Jack Kroll of Newsweek also called the movie “dynamite under every seat.” [ (( “Jack Kroll, “How Hot Is Too Hot; The Fuse Has Been Lit,” review of Do the Right Thing (Universal film), Newsweek, July 3, 1989, 64.” ))] Needless to say, none of them apologized after Do the Right Thing ran without incident. Lee’s movie grossed over $27.5 million on a $6.5 million budget, sufficient success to warrant a cycle of similar films, albeit ones about black-on-black rather than interracial violence. The films of the “ghetto action cycle”—as Amanda Ann Klein and S. Craig Watkins call it [ (( “S. Craig Watkins, “Ghetto Reelness: Hollywood Film Production, Black Popular Culture, and the Ghetto Action Film Cycle,” in Genre and Contemporary Hollywood, ed. Steve Neale (London: British Film Institute, 2002), 236-250, quoted in Amanda Ann Klein, American Film Cycles: Reframing Genres, Screening Social Problems, and Defining Subcultures (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011), 139.” ))] —continue Lee’s politicized violation of “a once-sacrosanct taboo against the portrayal of ‘negative’ images” of African-Americans by African-Americans. [ (( “Salim Muwakkil, “Spike Lee and the Image Police,” Cineaste 14, no. 4 (1990): 35.” ))] These movies were likewise blamed for inciting violence despite their anti-violence messages of personal responsibility, messages that, ironically, downplay the larger social forces undergirding racist and gang violence in this country.

Poster for Do The Right Thing

Poster for New Jack City

Original advertisements for Do The Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989) and New Jack City (Mario Van Peebles, 1991).

The first film of the cycle, New Jack City, premiered on March 8, 1991 — four days after news media unveiled video of Rodney King being beaten by LAPD officers. [ (( “Laura Baker, 7” ))] Yet journalists failed to make that connection when reporting on a riot outside one of the film’s screenings. At the Mann Theater in Los Angeles’s Westwood neighborhood, ticket-holders became upset when denied seats to an oversold show. LAPD were called in, and King’s name became the rallying cry in a protest against institutionalized racism. Reporters only associated the Westwood riot with New Jack City, however, and with the death of Gabriel Williams at another Brooklyn screening. The New York Times translated these and other incidents into a fear-mongering think-piece about how a “Film on Gangs Becomes Part of the World it Portrays.” [ (( “Seth Mydans, “Film on Gangs Becomes Part of the World It Portrays,” New York Times, March 13, 1991, A16. ” ))] The paper later granted producers Doug McHenry and George Jackson an op-ed to argue that “New Jack City doesn’t cause riots,” but the panic had been reborn. [ (( “Doug McHenry and George Jackson, “Missing the Big Picture,” New York Times March 26, 1991, A23.” ))] After New Jack City, the press associated ghetto action films with cinema violence; as Singleton put it, they were “lying in wait” when Boyz N the Hood came out on July 12th of that year. [ (( “Robert Reinhold, “Near Gang Turf, Theater Features Peace,” New York Times, July 15, 1991, A13.” ))]

Although Boyz N the Hood premiered at the Cannes Film Festival — where it received a glowing review from Roger Ebert — its US debut was marred by biased and inflammatory stories of cinema violence. During the film’s opening weekend, twenty of the 829 theaters where it played experienced some fighting or disorder. Shots were fired at cinemas in eight cities, and two people died: Michael Booth, at the Halstead Outdoor Drive-In in Riverdale, Illinois, and Jitu Jones, shot outside a downtown Minneapolis theater. [ (( “John Lancaster, “Film Opens With Wave of Violence,” Washington Post, July 14, 1991, A1; “Minneapolis Youth Second Victim of Violence at Film Showing,” New York Times, July 19, 1991, http://www.nytimes.com/1991/07/19/us/minneapolis-youth-2d-victim-of-violence-at-film-showing.html. ” ))] Riots and “melees” were also reported in Orlando and Tukwila, Washington. [ (( “Mike Williams, “Boyz N the Hood Violence Subsides,” Atlanta Journal and Constitution, July 15, 1991, A3.” ))] The LAPD set up defensive barricades in Westwood, fearing a riot similar to the one that accompanied New Jack City (and evidently in denial about the latter’s correlation with the King video). Newspapers sensationalized all of these events; headlines like “Trail of Trouble for Boyz” and “ Film Opens with Wave of Violence” accompanied stories that belied the film’s commercial and critical success. [ (( ““Trail of Trouble for Boyz,” Hollywood Reporter, July 15, 1991, 6; Lancaster, “Film Opens With Wave of Violence,” A1.” ))] In one, an Atlanta exhibitor scoffs, “Frankly, I’m surprised they haven’t banned the movie,” while another quotes an anonymous Columbia executive lamenting, “Who will show these movies anymore?” [ (( “Norma Wagner, “Atlanta-Area Theaters Beef Up Security for Boyz’ Showings,” Atlanta Journal and Constitution, July 14, 1991, A6; John Lancaster, “Film Opens With Wave of Violence,” A1.” ))] Even after the violence ended, newspapers continued to quote sources condemning Singleton’s movie as “just an excuse for getting rowdy.” [ (( “Williams, “Boyz N the Hood Violence Subsides,” A3.” ))] Like McHenry and Jackson, Singleton was called upon to publicly defend his film; he reminded reporters that cinema violence does not justify censoring filmmakers but is rather an “indication of the degradation of American society…a society that breeds illiteracy, economic depravation, and doesn’t educate its kids, and then puts them in jail.” [ (( “Andrea King, “Columbia Backing Up Its Boyz,” Hollywood Reporter, July 15, 1991, 6. ” ))]

Singleton rightly blamed the incidents at Boyz N the Hood — and Colors and New Jack City by extension — on the systematic dispossession of African-Americans, but this salient and important critique differs strikingly from the message of his film. Boyz N the Hood, like other films of the ghetto action cycle, stresses the individual’s personal responsibility to rise above unjust conditions. Its protagonist, Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), avoids the pitfalls of early parenthood and drugs, which entrap his friends, because he has a strong father figure, Jason “Furious” Styles (Lawrence Fishburne), who counsels him on anticipating the consequences of his actions.

Furious and Tre in Boyz N The Hood

Furious Styles (Lawrence Fishburne) advises his son Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) in Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton, 1991).

Furious also soliloquizes on how the impoverishment of black communities benefits white communities, but the film places its allegiances with Tre — who rises above — rather than with Ricky (Morris Chestnut) or Doughboy (Ice Cube), who cannot. As others have noted, personal responsibility is a politically conservative philosophy with high crossover potential for white audiences. [ (( “Kenneth Chan, “The Construction of Black Male Identity in Black Action Films of the Nineties,” Cinema Journal 37, no. 2 (1998): 35-48.” ))] It is to Singleton’s credit that he did not continue this reasoning in press conferences or interviews. But the contradiction does matter, in no small part because some people used the content of films like New Jack City and Boyz N the Hood to interpret the violence that accompanied their premiers. “Personal responsibility” places blame with the shooter, the filmmaker, and sometimes the victim, but it does not ask viewers to question how mass disenfranchisement also breeds violence. It helps decontextualize cinema violence by aligning those involved with the pathologized or irredeemable characters who cannot or will not escape violence in the films. To be sure, most journalists and other pundits report on cinema violence before they’ve seen the films, but as the films’ anti-violence messages are subsequently marshaled for their defense, they point towards the “personal responsibility” of the perpetrators. Unfortunately, the social origins of cinema violence would not be considered by the mainstream press until the twenty-first century, when lack of adequate mental health care became one way of explaining why whites were killing other whites at the movies.

Image Credits:

1. Original poster for Boyz N The Hood
2. Danny (Sean Penn) Evaluates Suspected Gang Members in Colors (Dennis Hopper, 1988) (author’s screen grab)
3. Original Advertisement for Do The Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)
4. Original Advertisement for New Jack City (Mario Van Peebles, 1991)
5. Furious Styles (Lawrence Fishburne) Advises His Son Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) in Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton, 1991) (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.

“Warriors, Come Out to Play”: Considering the Role of Films in Moral Panics about Cinema Violence
Caetlin Benson-Allott / Georgetown University


Movie theaters are supposed to be melting pots where individuals come together to form an audience, but often they are also sites of conflict, sometimes deadly conflict. On occasion, these incidents capture national and even international attention. In the US, they have inspired public outcry about street gangs and mental illness, depending—I will argue—on the races of the individuals involved.

The first US panic over cinema violence began in February 1979 when several young men died at or shortly after screenings of Walter Hill’s surreal urban epic, The Warriors. Their deaths led reviewers, pundits, politicians, parents, and even one pediatrician to call for the film’s censure. They blamed The Warriors for attracting gangs—specifically gangs of African-American young men—to the cinema, a rhetorical trope that would shape anticipation of and reporting on cinema violence for decades. In the 1980s and 1990s concerns about gang violence reached such a pitch that writers condemned John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood (1991) for inspiring cinema shootings before it even premiered. Race and cinema violence were inextricable in popular discourse, at least until this past decade, when a series of theater shootings by white men ought to have made whiteness the race under discussion.

No mainstream media cited race as a contributing factor when James Egan Holmes killed twelve people and injured seventy more at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in July 2012, nor did commentators condemn the film for inciting violence. The Warriors and Boyz N the Hood did not bring guns to theaters any more than The Dark Knight Rises did, but because they told stories about and attractive to young men of color, the films were blamed for the violence that accompanied them. In fact, the earlier movies question the social conditions that generate violence—far more so than The Dark Knight Rises—yet no one asked how institutional racism contributed to the incidents or public reactions to them. Such generosity has been reserved for non-black killers whose crimes are blamed on insufficient support for the mentally ill. [ (( “I say non-black because not all of the cinema shooters whose crimes were attributed to mental illness were white; in fact, the discourse began after Mujtaba Rabbani Jabbar shot Paul Schrum in a Baltimore-area screening of Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand in June 2006. Jabbar was suffering from schizophrenia at the time he shot Schrum, which is tragic. But the media never considered mitigating circumstances when blaming black men for previous incidents of cinema violence, unless you count blaming a movie for attracting black audiences.” Jennifer McMenamin, “25-year-old Man Guilty of Theater Shooting,” Baltimore Sun, December 19, 2006. ))] Thus it is the project of this column to ask how the presence of mortal violence in movie theaters inspires different kinds of fear depending on the presumed race of the perpetrators and victims.

Poster for

Original Advertisement for The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979)

When The Warriors premiered on February 9, 1979, no one took it very seriously. The first in a cycle of urban gang films, its cast was virtually unknown, although its director, Walter Hill, had recently made a name for himself with Hard Times (1975), a stylish Depression-era boxing movie starring Charles Bronson. Paramount opened the movie wide with an incendiary newspaper and television ad campaign hailing “the armies of the night,” but early reviewers were unimpressed. Some offered modest praise of Hill’s mannerist approach to the material: a Coney Island gang travels to a citywide summit in Bronx, is falsely accused of assassinating the meeting’s messianic leader, Cyrus (Roger Hill), and must fight their way home past a phantasmagoric assortment of rival gangs bent on revenge. The Warriors was popular at the box office, however. In two weeks, Hill’s movie had made over six million dollars. In three weeks, it was the highest grossing film in theaters and stood at the center of a nationwide controversy.

Original Television Spot for The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979)

Word was spreading that The Warriors did not just depict gang violence but provoked it. On Monday, February 12, Marvin Kenneth Eller was shot in the head—ostensibly by members of a local African-American gang—while seeing The Warriors at a drive-in theater in Palm Springs, California. [ (( ” “The Flick of Violence: A Gang Film called The Warriors Attracts Off-Screen Rumbles,” Time. March 19, 1979, 39.” )) ] That same night, Timothy Gitchel was fatally stabbed by a group of black teenagers outside a screening of The Warriors in Oxnard, California. Three nights later, Martin Yakubowicz was stabbed outside a Boston subway station by another teenager who had just seen the movie and paraphrased a key line of dialogue while attacking Yakubowicz. Initial reports identified Yakubowicz’s assailant as a member of a rival gang, although that story was later abandoned (and notably not retracted or corrected). During this period, gangs of young men were reported marauding the New York City subway system, and a Boston hitchhiker was attacked and nearly killed by three men who called themselves the Warriors. On March 23, a fourth young man was stabbed at a San Juan Capistrano drive-in, also while watching The Warriors. News of “Murder in the Cinema” spread to across the globe; Massachusetts state senator Michael LoPresti asked that the film be banned in Boston, a demand that Boston Globe film reviewer Bruce McCabe hastily endorsed. [ (( “William Scobie, “Murder in the Cinema,” The Observer, March 4, 1979, 12; Bruce McCabe, “Hollywood Faces Reality Sometimes,” Boston Globe, March 11, 1979, A12.” )) ] Protestors picketed screenings of The Warriors in New York and Los Angeles, alleging that it glorified gang violence. Newspaper columnists claimed that the movie was irresponsible and irredeemable, nothing more than “one long tracking shot of the gangs battling—with knives, guns, bicycle chains, clubs, switchblades, Molotov cocktails, and baseball bats.” [ (( ” “The Warriors Stirs Up Violent Storm,” The Globe and Mail, January 12, 1979, n.pag.; Louise Sweeney, “Does Violence on the Screen Mean Violence on the Street?” Christian Science Monitor April 3, 1979; B26.” )) ]

Warriors line up

The Warriors Consider Their Options in The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979)

That sounds like a great movie, but it isn’t The Warriors. The Warriors contains almost no on-screen bloodshed. Instead it takes the lives and concerns of its characters seriously, including their frustration with the American Dream. “This is what we fought all night to get back to?” lead Warrior Swan (Michael Beck) asks when his group finally reaches Coney Island. The so-called “People’s Playground” is nearly derelict. Its has no future to offer its youth, only a horizon of crushed hopes. In this manner, Hill’s movie resolutely refuses to either celebrate or condemn street gangs and their members. Yet just as the Warriors were falsely accused of killing Cyrus, The Warriors was unfairly blamed for the murders of Marvin Kenneth Eller, Timothy Gitchel, and Martin Yakubowicz. Report after report blamed the movie for sparking black-on-white violence even though the Warriors are a multiracial gang and the film associates its only all-black gang with discipline and justice. One Los Angeles anti-gang activist called The Warriors “a mind control picture,” suggesting that it induced violent uprising among young viewers, but most commentators indicted the audience directly. [ (( ” “Gang Film Draws Community Protest,” The Los Angeles Sentinel, February 22, 1979, A2.” )) ] As an anonymous Paramount executive put it, “If you bring that sort of crowd into the moviehouse, you will have the same trouble with The Sound of Music.” [ (( ” “The Flick of Violence” Time. March 19, 1979. ” ))]

Swan and Mercy

Swan (Michael Beck) and Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenberg) Come Home to Coney (The Warriors, Walter Hill, 1979)

Such an apology absolves the film but only by suggesting that “that sort of crowd” does not belong in movie theaters in the first place. In the context of the article and the era, “that sort” clearly refers to “gang members,” which clearly refers to African-American young men. Racism was hidden in euphemism during The Warriors scandal, but only barely. At root, the moral panic over The Warriors was driven by a fear that the wrong kind of people would take the wrong messages away from this film. That fear rests on a supposition that only some kinds of people should be going to the cinema in the first place.

Whether the concerned citizens of 1979 saw The Warriors or not, they were certainly frightened by its message: the have-nots outnumber the haves, and they have nothing to lose. The combination of social realist themes with surreal violence confused critics, which contributed to the media’s transformation of a few isolated incidents of cinema violence into a nationwide moral panic. That panic established the rhetoric with which others would predict and denounce gang violence at anti-gang movies, most notably John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood (1991). My subsequent columns will examine the controversy surrounding Boyz N the Hood and the international shock that followed Holmes’s massacre at The Dark Knight Rises. Race played a determining role in how the media portrayed both events, in how cinema violence was transformed from a social menace to a social tragedy.

Image Credits:

1. The Warriors
2. Original poster for The Warriors
2. Warriors line up (author’s screen grab)
3. Swan and Mercy (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.

Mediating Ferguson in Columbia, SC
Susan Courtney / University of South Carolina

Author’s note: In the summer of 2016 I agreed to write a series of guest columns on teaching race and media studies today. I drafted most of this first one in early fall, before having to shelve it for a while to complete a book—entitled, coincidentally by now, Split Screen Nation. By the time I could return to this piece, it was only a week after the results of the presidential election had stunned and horrified millions of Americans. In that context, the challenges animating the piece remained deeply familiar, yet also felt—like most every challenge we collectively face—profoundly more daunting. In a world in which Donald Trump is the U.S. President-elect and Steve Bannon has ascended from the alt-right (white) media “fringe” to the center of world power, few things seem clearer than the limits of confining academic work for social justice within academic institutions. [ (( Anyone who hasn’t already heard Kelly McEvers interview with alt-right activist Richard Spencer, broadcast on NPR on November 17, 2016, should. Hearing this on the radio while driving home from work, I felt the surreality of the present shift into a whole new register. )) ] The column below nonetheless remains much as I first drafted it, in part due to time constraints. In addition, when I returned to it I found the recent (pre-election) histories it attempts to describe to resonate with still more recent events in ways I could never have imagined, even weeks ago.

Protesters at South Carolina State House, July 3, 2015

Protesters at South Carolina State House, July 3, 2015

“What is true in the South is true for America.”
-President Obama, Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney,
(Live Streamed from) Charleston, South Carolina, June 26, 2015.
[ (( President Barak Obama, “Remarks by the President in Eulogy for the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney,” College of Charleston, Charleston, SC, June 26, 2015. The eulogy is also viewable on multiple (local, national, and African American) news websites. I first streamed it live in my office via a local TV station in Columbia, SC. Revisiting it amidst the grief of the election I was deeply moved once more for its understanding of simultaneously national and regional truths. I discuss such links—as articulated in work by Tara McPherson (Reconstructing Dixie), Howard Zinn (The Southern Mystique), and others—as well as a history of screen media that has worked to disavow them in Split Screen Nation: Moving Images of the American West and South (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2017). )) ]

Having taught race and media studies at a public university in the South for nearly two decades, for the first time I find myself with the urge to write about doing so. Two things initially inspired this: intensified national discussions about race in the United States sparked by the seemingly unending emergence and circulation of videos documenting lethal encounters by African Americans and Latinos with the police, and an undergraduate class I taught in response to these phenomena in the fall of 2015, “Mediating Ferguson, USA: 1915-2015.”

Simply put, “Mediating Ferguson” was an experiment on several levels, and more successful than I ever imagined it might be. The students in it were exceptionally engaged and invested, and rigorous thinking and honest discussion—across differences of race, class, gender, and sexuality—became the daily stuff of class, and brought a routine sense of relevance, at times even of necessity, to our work on media both old and new. Indeed, from our first day to our last, we were all well aware that the class was profoundly shaped by our historical moment. So much so, that while I will discuss in a subsequent column some of what occurred within it, and pedagogical strategies (regarding syllabus design, assignments, and so on) that played a part, it seems essential first to sketch how the class emerged, when it did, and where. All of this was, and remains (not least in mid-November, 2016), utterly relevant to the pedagogical challenges and practices at issue.

Although I taught this course in fall 2015, I proposed it in late 2014, prompted by recent events. These included (that summer) the killings by police of Michael Brown in Ferguson and of Eric Garner in Staten Island; the grand jury decisions in both cases (in late November and early December) not to indict the officers responsible; and the waves of protest and an activist movement, Black Lives Matter, sparked by these and related cases. But what moved me to envision the class was my viewing of the video of Eric Garner being choked to death by police as he begged them to let him breathe. I didn’t watch it until just after the grand jury’s decision in this case came down. But when I did, at home alone one morning, I found myself weeping in disbelief. As I eventually tried to recompose myself, wondering what I might be able to do in response to what I had seen, all I could think to do was write a course description (which in any case was due). As I brainstormed, I realized that the year upcoming, and hence the semester in which I would teach the course, would mark the centennial of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915)—a film not only infamous for its celebration of white supremacist vigilantism (fueled by racist fantasies of black criminality), but also of local note for its (imagined) locations in South Carolina, including the state house that lies just blocks from my campus. Groaning to myself (“Oh great, it’s Birth’s birthday”), it seemed right to foreground the course’s historical dimension in its full title.

My course description pitched the class as a “history for the present”: we would begin with viral cell phone and dash cam videos and the “current national conversation” with the aim of figuring out what questions we thought we most needed to be asking; but we would then turn to look back at the history of race and justice mediated through U.S. film and television, to consider what this media history “might have to teach us about where we are now, how we got here, and strategies for moving forward.” In the spring of 2015 I put up fliers announcing the course with an AP photo by Bebeto Matthews of an African American protestor with his hands up in the air and his mouth covered by a paper mask with Eric Garner’s final words written on it, “I can’t breathe.” After the fliers were up another video went viral, this one shot closer to home by a bystander in North Charleston, South Carolina, in which Officer Michael Slager fires his gun eight times at Walter Scott as Scott tries to run away, and then, after handcuffing the fallen and immobile victim, appears to tamper with evidence.

If video footage such as this was already becoming disturbingly familiar by the time students began enrolling in the course—with the circulation of videos documenting incidents leading to the deaths of Tamir Rice (Cleveland), Freddie Gray (Baltimore), Sandra Bland (Hempstead, Texas), and Ricardo Diaz Zeferino (Gardena, California)—nothing could have prepared any of us for the horrific mass murder of nine African Americans in their church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17. Nor could we have predicted the profound and collective forms of grief and shame that immediately followed the massacre in this state, not least in the capital city where I teach, in which the alleged shooter and avowed white supremacist, Dylan Roof, had been raised. Even before the weight of the tragedy had fully sunk in, when the news had just broken and the manhunt for Roof was still on, I remember reading on my computer screen that he was from Columbia. Suddenly, in a panic, I rushed to open my university directory and type in his name, thinking to myself (a nonbeliever), “Please God, don’t let him be one of ours.” The fact that my brain would even go there seems, in some respects, a little embarrassing. (I have never known of a single student here who draped himself in the Confederate flag or publically spewed hate speech.) That it did, however, speaks to the difference it made for those of us who live here that the suspected killer was homegrown, and that the flag he posed with online was prominently displayed by our state on its capitol grounds, at the literal center of town. [ (( Ed Madden, Columbia’s Poet Laureate, vividly evokes the profound local response in his poem, “When we’re told we’ll never understand.” Written in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, it was read aloud at a mass gathering of mourners at the state house just days later. In that moment, the large, multi-age, mixed-race crowd that had been standing in the intense summer heat for what felt like hours suddenly froze and fell utterly silent. This was a mass experience of poetry, too, like none I had ever experienced. )) ] It was all the more meaningful, then—not least for all who had tried to bring that flag down for decades—when hundreds and then thousands of people gathered together at that very spot: first in deep mourning; then to call for the flag’s removal; and, finally, to cheer en masse with unbridled joy and relief when it finally came down.

Cheering the Removal of the Confederate Flag

It was just weeks later, then, when many here were still reeling, that students and I showed up for this new course that didn’t really yet exist. I had named it, and briefly described a path we might try to map, but I knew I wanted to invite students—needed them—to engage in the process with me of figuring out what questions we should be asking. Their response to this call—the eagerness with which they engaged a wide range of materials to better understand a host of relevant issues, the astute questions they formulated, and their investigation of them through compelling, original forms of critical and creative work—at times astounded me. And our work together, the community we made and the critical passions it seemed to nurture in so many of them, and in me, to continue our work in the course beyond it, became an even more enduring source of hope than the jubilant removal of that flag.

Obama Eulogizes Clementa Pinckney

I feel several risks in writing about this experience, but they seemed worth taking. And I look forward to continuing this story. This much already, though, moves me to reconsider Obama’s insight, cited above, upon eulogizing Clementa Pinckney, and guiding all who mourned the Charleston Nine. The President was inspired by Pinckney’s own wisdom about the failure to recognize others different from ourselves: “Across the South, we have a deep appreciation of history, [but] we haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history.” In registering this as a national truth, too, Obama’s wisdom now resonates especially loudly as millions grapple with the question of how it has come to pass that white nationalists have friends in the White House. Knowing this question will occupy us for years to come, I take some comfort now in my sense that so many of my students—black and white, LGBTQ and not, from “red” suburbs and small towns as well as “blue” cities—want to understand other people’s history, media, and experience in part because they know about some of the damages of not doing so in the places in which they grew up and to which they are likely to return, or at least visit. This gives them, and students from so many places where people now appear to be comfortable with the rhetoric of white nationalism, the potential to be exemplary agents of change.

Image Credits:

1. Photograph courtesy of Chloe Courtney Bohl
2. “Lowering the Flag,” SCETV
3. President Obama delivers eulogy for Clementa Pinckney

Please feel free to comment.