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Macalester prof’s book incites conservatives, months before being published

Duchess Harris

Two Fridays ago, Macalester College Professor Duchess Harris appeared on TPT’s “Almanac” to talk about a book she co-authored about the Black Lives Matter movement. Aimed at middle- and high-school students, the book won’t be published for another couple of months.

Her publicist sent out a link to the segment anyway, which got picked up by the ultra-conservative Daily Caller, which posted a story under the headline, “Fancypants Professor Introduces Black Lives Matter Book For White SIXTH GRADERS.”

That tumbled into a “Fox and Friends Weekend” segment in which Larry Elder, the “Sage of South Central,” said the book was “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. Never mind the election, and re-election, of a black president.”

The site Twitchy — which deserves some sort of award for unintentional irony in branding — piled on, noting that the book is “Common Core aligned.”

Tweets multiplied

That none of them had seen the book, which has not yet even been bound into galleys for reviewers, stopped no one. Tweets multiplied into paranoid, profane and predictable Storifys.

By Monday it was over and Harris returned to being chair of the American Studies Department at Macalester, as well as the author of much weightier tomes. (Side note to Fox & Co.: It doesn’t work to use the phrase “black feminist” to insult a woman who calls herself a black feminist and even writes whole books about black feminism.)

The episode might have served as fodder for hilarious water cooler talk if it did not so neatly illustrate the impetus for the book.

“Black Lives Matter,” a slender volume about the movement, is exactly the kind of reading material that, acquired by enough U.S. school libraries, could finally relegate Elder and his fellow sadsack bloviators to history’s dustbins.

Harris has long written about race, but hadn’t previously thought to do so for young people. This time last year, when she convened her Introduction to African American Studies course, she knew the class needed to talk about Michael Brown, killed just three weeks earlier in Ferguson, Missouri.

Saw discomfort among students

When she broached the topic, the wave of discomfort was palpable. A quick exchange revealed that not a single one of the students — a disproportionate number of them freshmen — had talked about race in high school. They had signed up for the class, but they were scared.

“The outcome of being afraid is illiteracy,” says Harris. “I laugh with my math colleagues; they don’t have students who show up without having taken algebra.”

The class was wrapping when local educational publisher ABDO asked Harris to analyze the content of a book it had commissioned. Harris loved what journalist Sue Bradford Edwards, who was covering Ferguson, had written so much she asked if she could have a larger role in the project.

Advance sales for the book the two co-authored start on Amazon Nov. 1. Unlike Elder, MinnPost asked for and was given a copy, complete with an introduction by Rep. Keith Ellison.

Traces movement’s roots

The book is remarkable, tracing the roots of the movement as far back as the 1700s in prose that is clear and frank. It’s written for secondary students, but contains history that would be illuminating to most American news consumers, whose headlines are rarely followed by the context Harris and Bradford Edwards provide.

Chapters document the killings of Oscar Grant, shot by police at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, Trayvon Martin and Detroiter Renisha McBride, among others. There are chapters on racial disparities in policing, the roots of police force militarization and the U.S. Justice Department’s response to the protests in Ferguson.

Indeed there’s something about revisiting these events without the clutter and chatter of the 24-hour news cycle that gives the book tremendous power. Without the background noise, the facts of each killing and law enforcement’s abuses are rendered stark.

A lawyer as well as a doctor of philosophy, Harris says the book’s fact-upon-fact voice is intentional. The way law students are taught to dissect cases is a very effective way to help teens navigate controversies.

“What did Trayvon Martin’s side say? What did George Zimmerman say? What did the jury decide?” she says. “That’s what I mean about literacy. It’s not about taking a side, it’s about people having a coherent understanding.”

Not a textbook

It’s important to note that “Black Lives Matter” is not a textbook. It is part of a series of books published by ABDO to provide background on current and historical events. Harris and her collaborator are at work on another, about African-American female mathematicians who worked at NASA.

Providing a weekend’s grist to the rage machine was most assuredly not one of Harris’ goals when she asked to join Bradford Edwards. It would be great if future freshmen arrived at Macalester with exposure to conversations about race.

“My hope is [the book] is used in classrooms 6 to 12, and that it sparks discussion and dialogue,” she says. “I would love it so much if this were officially adopted as curriculum in the Twin Cities. That’s my dream.”

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/31/2015 - 10:21 am.

    No surprise

    The right wing reaction is predictable.

    If not this particular book, then something very much like it is long overdue. I *will* be surprised if it’s widely adopted as curricular material, but it would be, to understate the matter considerably, useful in an awful lot of secondary classrooms, especially suburban ones.

  2. Submitted by MARISA GUSTAFSON on 08/31/2015 - 10:54 am.

    Thanks for some insight into the authors’ intentions and the actual content of the book. I had heard about it on social media but did not know it was co-authored by a member of our community.

    Much needed and long-overdue. I look forward to reading it and sharing it with fellow educators. Thank you Ms. Harris and Ms. Bradford Edwards.

  3. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 08/31/2015 - 03:40 pm.


    Good article – but using the word incite suggests that something the author said or did provoked the conservative reaction. Conservatives appear to simply be looking for excuses for their angry.

    Conservatives hate the idea of Black Lives Matter, because it speaks to the oppression that blacks have faced ever since they were brought into the country as slaves. Does society deal more harshly with black than white, regardless of the situation? Absolutely. White folks who don’t admit that the injustice continues and aren’t doing their best to defeat their own bigotries are reinforcing it.

    Two racial groups face continuing oppression and hatred more than anyone else – Native Americans (who we stole the country from) and African Americans (who we stole their freedom). We aren’t even close to the kind of post-racial society we need to make happen..

  4. Submitted by Gary Doan on 08/31/2015 - 03:50 pm.

    Is is an honest representation?

    Does it say that the whole premise is based on a lie, that was proven to be a lie and recanted by the person that told the “Hands Up” lie?

    I seriously doubt it, which makes the entire work fiction. Is it okay to present fiction to students as fact?

  5. Submitted by Phil Dech on 08/31/2015 - 05:01 pm.


    I don’t see any pants. How can we tell?

    I’m being facetious. I think there are two elements to the reaction. First, there are plenty of us caucasians, especially the conservative ones, who would really like to think that we as a society and a culture are much further along than we actually are regarding issues of race, and racial equality. It can be very uncomfortable when that view is challenged.

    Second is the messenger. People are still intimidated by an intelligent woman of color who can articulate herself. Evidence is the choice of the word “fancypants” in that headline. They could not attack her academic qualifications. To attack her race or gender, in this day and age, would not be acceptable. They can attack her thesis, but apparently that is insufficient. (See first paragraph…) So “fancypants,” with implications of milquetoast liberalism and lack of any real-world experience, is all they could come up with.

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