#BlackLivesMatter and the Power of the Primary

Helicopters swarmed above 34th street last week, positioning the Graduate Center amidst blocked traffic and sirens as protesters painted the city with demands for justice. Responses such as these to racial profiling by police have erupted on a national scale since the beginning of the #BlackLivesMatter organization founded by Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza. Instead of replicating much of what has been seen and said in regard to this movement, this blog post aims to answer the following question:

As citizens with access to academic resources, how does the academy interact with these conversations?

So not to be bogged down by the limitation and bias of social media and journalists, one role of the scholar is to remain proactively informed. Information and its access will allow for the scholar to formally move into the world, as content creators, educators, and informed citizens with the time to dedicate to intensive research, among other roles.

Blackpanthernewspaper

The Black Panther [Black Community News Service] 1 no. 1:1-4 (April 25, 1967); From Black Thought and Culture Database in Alexander Street Produced in collaboration with the University of Chicago. Copyright © 2016 Alexander Street Press, LLC.

The Power of the Primary Research into historical narratives or archival materials of social movements that have existed throughout the United States may respond to questions raised over the past couple of years, on issues of race, police, accountability, community engagement, and media responses, to name a few.

One unit of measure for present day political understandings on race and racial profiling is to compare activist experiences of today to social movements of the past. The Graduate Center Library subscribes to many archival and primary source databases. One of which is Black Thought and Culture, a primary source database that provides approximately 100,000 pages of monographs, essays, articles, speeches, and interviews written by leaders within the black community from the earliest times to the present. This and other Alexander Street Databases have been recently acquired by Proquest which may mean potential changes and enhancements to come. For now, it is a browsable, term-based database, best keyword searched by name of inidvidual.

In this image, note that the very first issue, volume 1, number 1, published in 1967, of the Black Panther’s Black Community News Service (BCNS) newspaper, highlights the fatal shooting of a 22 year old black man, Denzil Dowell, who was unarmed, yet received “six bullet holes and shot gun blasts” according to the BCNS. The article highlights, “‘I believe the police murdered my son” says the mother of Denzil Dowell.’

What does this image reveal? What questions does this reimagined moment in history answer, or bring to the fore? What is the power of this primary resource if reclaimed?

Much can be extrapolated. It is the work of scholars to approach primary sources and use them as context for further inquiry.

To visit the Alexander Street database, one must go to the Graduate Center library database page and log in with your Graduate Center username and password. Only GC affiliates may enter, but if you are not a current GC affiliate, you can search your local library for this database or any of the many other primary source databases which cover US history. Also, some of the Panther Archive is accessible online with a simple google-search to materials scanned and openly available on the non-proprietary world wide web.

About the Author

Profile photo of Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz is an Assistant Professor and Head of Reference at the Graduate Center Library.