Teaching the history of “race riots” in summer 2020

Today, with a heavy heart, I start teaching my digital history course on “race riots” in the 20th century US, necessarily online in GMU’s summer session. I feel like I should have been prepared for what is happening now. I taught this course in Fall 2019 and have spent this year writing and building a digital monograph on the 1935 Harlem “riot,” a project I’ve been researching for more than five years. But I wasn’t. I’m struggling with a knot of anger, frustration, fear, fatigue and tiredness.

I worry that the students enrolled in the course are certainly struggling even more. But I don’t yet know anything about them or where they are all located right now. I don’t know how prepared they are for the history they will encounter. In the first meeting of the class last Fall I asked the 45 students if they had discussed a “race riot” in any history class they had taken, or knew anything about racial disorders in American history. Not one had; not one did. Will this group answer differently when they get to that question sometime this week? Will they want to think historically about the summer of 2020? As a start, I’ve set up an optional discussion, and seeded it with the powerful historical perspectives offered in the last few days by Elizabeth Hinton, Keisha Blain, and Robert Greene III.

Today, maps of the current protests appeared in news reporting for the first time. This example is from the New York Times:

New York Times (June 1, 2020)

It brought to mind this simple map I made of racial disorders between 1866 and 1968, which I share with my students in our first class on historicizing racial violence.



The map is a very incomplete picture of racial disorder; I’m certainly missing events, especially as many of the small scale outbreaks of violence categorized as “riots” in 1967 would not have attracted that attention in earlier periods (just as the NYT map certainly does not capture all the protests, as @lara_putnam showed earlier today for Pennsylvania). It’s an even less complete picture of collective racial violence: the Monroe Work Today map goes some way towards filling out that picture by showing both “riots” and lynchings.



As part of the class I ask students to identify the historical disorder closest to where they are, and what, if anything, they know about it. I share the map here in case anyone else might want to answer that question for themselves.

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