Writing As a Black Scholar: Teaching Black Activism, Hip-Hop, and the Cost of Activism

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by Holly Burgess, Ph.D candidate, Marquette University

This is the third post in an occasional series affiliated with the Writing Innovation Symposium (WIS), a 2-day annual event hosted online and in Milwaukee, WI. Learn more below and in posts tagged “writing innovation” and “symposium.” 

On January 7, 2023,  Tyre Nichols was murdered by officers of the Memphis Police Department. Tyre Nichols was a father, son, photographer, friend, skateboarder, and so much more. His life mattered. Twenty-one days later, the police footage of Nichols’s death was streamed via the media. On January 28, 2023, unable to sleep, I debated whether to write to my students about Tyre Nichols. I began to draw comparisons between Tyre and myself; we are both twenty-nine years old, Black, and enjoy Memphis.

As an avid Elvis fan, I’ve visited Memphis, TN, three times in my life; Graceland became a sacred place to visit and spend time. I remember the first time my mother brought me to Memphis for my fifteenth birthday; I was excited to be in a predominantly Black city. Residing in Wisconsin, I was raised in a predominately white suburb, my heart yearning to be amongst Black people and culture. When we left the gates of Graceland, I cried. Looking back, I realize why Memphis is so special to me—Memphians treat you like family and welcome you in with their southern hospitality. I knew Tyre Nichols’s death would leave Memphis in civil unrest, hurting and longing for change.

I knew that my students would also be hurting. I emailed my two English classes my thoughts about Nichols. I told my students that I would open space for them to discuss their feelings and grief regarding Nichols. I drafted a call-to-action to the English Department, demanding they release a statement about Tyre Nichols’s death. My call-to-action resulted in other Black students and faculty members expressing their demands to the department, which led to the formation of a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) steering committee that aims to: promote Black faculty/students' work, creating more Black-oriented events like celebrating Black History Month, hiring and retaining Black faculty and students, creating more curriculum based upon African American literature, culture, and rhetoric.

While these initiatives are a great first start for confronting the anti-Blackness that lies in society and academia, one thing I learned is that even in times of trauma and hurt, white colleagues assume that Black faculty and graduate students have all the answers, that we have ready-made lesson plans about how to teach police brutality, institutional racism, and violence in our classrooms. The fact is that we’re people first, and we are hurting. We’re not immediately ready to develop and steer curricula based on our identities and emotions. We need time to process the grief as a community before we are tasked with guiding white academics who wish to do better.

In February, I attended the 2023 Writing Innovation Symposium (WIS) at Marquette University. This year’s theme of the WIS is Writing as ____, wherein the presenters were tasked with filling in the blank. I chose to fill my blank with “Writing as a Black Scholar.” At the WIS, I presented a poster titled “The People Are Rising”: Revolution and Violence in African American Social Movements and Literature.” My poster was an overview of my forthcoming dissertation; I have created a literary genealogy of four generations of Black social movements. I trace how each generation reacts and responds to police brutality and violence.

During my poster presentation, a few audience members were interested in my dissertation and academic work; however, most wanted to make a spectacle about my statement on Tyre Nichols and my accidental activism within the English Department. My name was now attached to Tyre Nichols and the departmental change that it sparked rather than my dissertation or scholarly work. I’m a Black Ph.D. candidate and know the cost of activism.

Accidental activism results in white colleagues looking to you for readings, guidance, lesson plans, and workshops; it places a heavier burden on you to steer a department into anti-racist pedagogy and social progress. I have been dubbed the “girl in the Tyre Nichols email” rather than an emerging Black scholar. I recognize why more experienced BIPOC faculty members feel jaded about the prospect of change within English departments. It requires extra work from them, a minority tax. Social progress relies on BIPOC faculty rather than white colleagues self-educating. I’m unsure what can be done to change the English literature canon or anti-racism, but I can suggest incorporating more Black authors and texts into your classes—reaching beyond the standard of James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. Incorporate Black musicianspoets, and rappers, and your students will thank you.


If you’re interested in learning more about the WIS consider joining us in Milwaukee at WIS 2024! Read our CFP here.

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