“A Troubled Past” and the Meanings of Breaking the Law

In early August, St. Louis County Police shot eighteen-year-old Tyrone Harris, Jr. amidst an outbreak of violence during protests in memory of Michael Brown. The Washington Post described Harris as a young man with a “troubled past.” That phrase, so often reserved for those deemed to be on the wrong side of the law, obscures long and complex histories of individuals, groups, and nations. It offers a simplistic explanation for arrest, incarceration, or violent death as a logical and direct extension of a person’s unspecified yet determinative past.

Kara Brown, writing at Jezebel, places Tyrone Harris, Jr., within the longer history of black Americans surviving in a nation that has so often designed to destroy them. She encourages black people to continue to live:

So I say this: Burn down the stores. Sag your pants. Blast your music. Protest. Write. Sing. Dance. Ace their tests. Beat them at their own game. Let America know that we are here and we are alive right now and forever.

Brown opens that call to be free with an embrace of lawbreaking, and positions it alongside a range of other political acts that may seem more reasonable. We might, however, understand lawbreaking differently when we acknowledge and account for the fact that black people live and have always lived in a nation of unequal laws, and that our judgment of what it means to break the law often looks quite different with the passage of time.

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A Slave Cemetery at Serenity Farm

How does one have both slavery and serenity?  For the African American women, men, and children who lived within slavery, toiled as a result of the institution’s harsh conditions, and died of severe gum disease, the peace and calm surely did not come from the farm as the name implies.[1]

But slave plantations are ripe with contradictions.  For starters, plantations are large spaces of land acquired to produce a crop, a food stuff or material product, for human sustainability while enslaving the growers of these life-sustaining crops.  From corn and wheat, to tobacco and cotton, these raw materials were produced within such violent conditions using harsh physical restraints that the growing killed the growers.  In this way, the plantation system simultaneously created and destroyed life.[Continue Reading…]

The OTHER Sin of Omission in “Straight Outta Compton”


Today’s guest post was written by Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at University of California, Irvine. A twentieth-century U.S. historian, she specializes in gender, sexuality, and the politics of patient advocacy, … [Continue reading]

On the use of “Slave Mistress”

  The passing of the great civil-rights leader Julian Bond earlier this week ignited a firestorm of activity on Twitter. Historians of African American women’s history noticed and commented on something suspect in Bond’s obituary, a brief … [Continue reading]

Teaching Living History: Between the Living and the Dead


Fall is looming close, which means it is that time of the year when many of us are returning to the classroom. It is an especially chaotic time for academics as we gear up for the teaching work that accompanies the life of the mind. For many, that … [Continue reading]

Fighting like Fannie Lou: On Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter, and the Democratic Process

On August 8th, 2015, Black Lives Matter “shut down” a Bernie Sanders presidential campaign event in Seattle, Washington. Taking the stage, Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford called attention to gentrification, police brutality, and systemic racism, … [Continue reading]

The U.S. Occupation of Haiti: A Bibliography

U.S. Marines in occupied Haiti

July 28, 2015 marked the one-hundred year anniversary of the landing of U.S. Marines on Haitian soil. A number of organizations marked the occasion and, to conclude my own series on the U.S. occupation of Haiti, I would now like to present a … [Continue reading]

Charnesia Corley & a Storify for the #blkwomensyllabus

Screenshot of photos tagged #blkwomensyllabus as of 2015 August 13 | 00:11:23 (Snapped by Jessica Marie Johnson)

This past Monday, a young black woman in Texas named Charnesia Corley was stopped by the police as she ran an errand for a family member. Officers held her down, stripped her, and forced her to undergo a cavity search (including a search of her … [Continue reading]

What is Happening in Waller County?: Sandra Bland and the Sister Comrades Who #sayhername

1 Crowd Gathers Before Protest UU Contingent

On Friday, July 10, 2015, just outside of the campus of Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU) in Waller County, a Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) officer named Brian Encinia pulled over 28-year-old Sandra Bland, and subsequently arrested … [Continue reading]

“With all of the ‘riff raff’ happening in Baltimore”


I am pleased to announce that I accepted a job offer at Towson University, which is in the Baltimore community! As noted in my post back in April, accepting a job offer was an extremely difficult decision that was based on many important factors. I … [Continue reading]