Teaching in Climes of Unrest: BLM, Slavery and the Intellectual Underpinnings of Student Protest at Oberlin

Tamika Y. Nunley

College sophomore Gloria Lewis dances in front of Wilder Hall, where students gathered for a Black Lives Matter protest on Friday, Nov. 20, 2015. Dozens of people marched through the hallways of the Science Center and King Hall and throughout campus chanting “Say Her Name” and “Black Lives Matter.” Photographed by Aaron Cohen at the Oberlin College Review.

I will begin the course this fall with Sowande’ Mustakeem’s Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage. Mustakeem does the impressive work of researching and narrating a complicated process—the “unmaking of black lives.”[i] The book not only serves as one of many chronological starting points for a course about American slavery but positions students to boldly interrogate the question that brought them to the class to begin with:  Why are black people dying in the twenty-first century?[ii]  I introduced the course in the fall of 2016 as Oberlin students found themselves steeped in the scores of violent tragedies and courageous protests that catalyzed the Black Lives Matter movement. Students looked to the past to begin thinking more critically about the proliferation of anti-black violence within their generation.

Oberlin boasts a rich institutional legacy of social activism as the first college to admit women and African American students. Because it is a leader among liberal arts colleges in supporting progressive social movements, many undergraduates expect a level of scholarly rigor that foregrounds their student activism. Some members of its community might argue that Oberlin rests too comfortably on its laurels of radical politics, and that the college fails to maximize the potential for radical social transformation. Still, when the nation erupts, students and faculty convene in the classroom to understand their contemporary moment. In my brief experience, students looked to the history of slavery in search for an explanation for ongoing anti-black violence.

Oberlin Apartheid Protests, November 22, 1984. Oberlin and Student Activism Exhibit. Photo Courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives.

Instinctively, students desire to make connections between the past and the present. Professionally, bridging this gap as a point of departure is often discouraged or dismissed as anachronistic.  I cautioned students not to conflate different historical moments of racial oppression, since a slavery course will not explain everything. Yet, I found myself willing to embrace the messy inquiries and curiosities that shaped the intellectual current of class discussions.   We examined the commodification of black bodies during the Middle Passage and within the antebellum slave market. We interrogated historiographical arguments about the economic history of slavery and the forces that bolstered the exponential growth of slavery. We studied accounts of the violence enacted by the state, locals, overseers, and white women and men, and the legal system that sanctioned it.  With each theme discussed, I encouraged them to read carefully and thoroughly to go beyond the fact that slavery was violent and to think through the construction of race and gender, the vulnerability of black bodies, the laws and policies that engineered social hierarchies to more fully understand historical iterations of racial repression. As students “did the work,” the disposability and disregard of black lives began to emerge with more clarity through our studies of slavery in America. Students processed information that illuminated one of many moments in history that involved the unmaking of black lives.

Student dancing in ABUSUA protest of the lack of black theater and dance studies. Photo Courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives.

Spanning centuries, this process of unmaking black lives took root well before Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice were killed; still the anti-black sentiment that threaded centuries of the black experience resonated with what students witnessed through bodycams, smartphones, and snapshots. Pedagogically, the focus rested less on controlling the method of knowledge acquisition and embracing the difficult questions and parallels students formed about the legacies of slavery. They were interested in the nexus between race-based bondage and anti-black brutality. At the same time, they tried to make sense of their place at a place like Oberlin and in a country like the United States. Teaching slavery at Oberlin presented unique opportunities because of a student activist culture historically tied to the abolitionist movement.

Recognizing the college as a “hotbed of abolitionism,” as J. Brent Morris phrased the legacy of Oberlin, students learned of its role in the antebellum antislavery movement.[iii] Even as they marveled at the distinctive role of the Oberlin community in the abolition of slavery, they developed cautionary critiques of paternalism among liberal activists.  Furthermore, they pondered what allyship might look like today in the black lives matter movement.  Strategies for resistance might take on different forms depending on a person’s position of privilege.

Lucie Stanton Day Sessions graduated from Oberlin in 1850 and delivered a commencement speech at her graduation condemning slavery. Photo Courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives.

These were not insignificant considerations, but reflective of the concerns students raise everyday on campus as they strategize about how to engage in collective protest.  In their studies of slavery, they understood that the enslaved expressed and enacted many forms of resistance that led to black liberation. The unmaking of black lives didn’t occur without black people’s efforts to make lives for themselves.  Students learned about this process of self-making through their study of slave resistance and survival.  From black radical traditions of resistance, students that represent multiple racial, ethnic, and gender identities grounded their understandings of black lives matter as a movement that centered the marginalized.

The Obies in my class made thoughtful connections between the centuries of bondage that beset the nation’s history and the presumed disposability of black queer, trans, women, disabled, and cis male bodies that represent the countless murders of black people in the twenty-first century. Even with Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts inundated with videos of reckless bloodshed, this generation of student activists found inspiration that stretched back to the “everyday resistance” captured in Stephanie Camp’s Closer to Freedom and the unflinching protests of students at the University of Missouri. In the study of slavery, they found a place to push the epistemological boundaries and examine history to make sense of their worlds and their places in it.[iv]


[i] Sowande’ M. Mustakeem, Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage (Urbana, IL, 2016), 22.

[ii] Melvin L. Rogers, “Introduction, Disposable Lives,” Theory & Event 17 no. 3 (2014).

[iii] J. Brent Morris, Oberlin, Hotbed of Abolitionism: College, Community, and the Fight for Freedom and Equality in Antebellum America (Chapel Hill, NC, 2014).

[iv] Stephanie M. H. Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Chapel Hill, NC, 2004).

21 August 2017

About the Author

Tamika Y. Nunley is Assistant Professor of History at Oberlin College and Conservatory.

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