Why Self-Immolation Often Goes Unnoticed in America

The death of David Buckel, a prominent gay rights attorney in New York City, made waves a couple of weeks ago after he self-immolated at Prospect Park in New York City. His death received major attention for a few reasons: his death occurred in a populated area with heavy foot traffic (making it inherently public) and he had a clearly stated goal in his “suicide” letter, asking people to fight against the destruction of the environment.

His act was covered by all of the major news outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune.

While Buckel’s self-immolation is unique via circumstance, the choice of the flame itself is not that rare to the rest of the world and has even occurred in America a handful of times the past few years.

But these deaths often go unnoticed.

To begin, an uptick in self-immolations has occurred over the past decade. In Tunisia and much of North Africa, self-immolation became an en vogue form of protest in 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi infamously self-immolated on a Tunisian street corner to protest the police harassing him and confiscating his wages. Many experts claim Bouazizi’s death ignited the Arab Spring and sparked copycat self-immolations across the region. Similarly, in 2016, a young Iranian refugee self-immolated in Australia’s detention center, Narau, after he failed to seek asylum to Australia, which caused a national uproar in the country. However the nucleus of these self-immolations resides in Tibet, where there have been over 150 self-immolations since 2011 to protest the Chinese government’s rule over Tibet’s autonomy.

If you take all these numbers together, on average, a person has self-immolated as protest every 15 days globally between 2009-2016.

While a few of these self-immolations materialized in America over this past decade, they have not received the same attention as their international brethren.

For instance, in January 2017, a man attempted self-immolation outside the Trump Hotel in Washington in D.C. While he didn’t die, many news outlets failed to emphasize his act as protest. Similarly, an elderly man in Ohio lit himself on fire in Akron to protest then President-elect Trump but did not receive much news coverage outside of local media. Outside of these recent Trump protests, a white preacher, Charles Moore, lit himself on fire in 2014 as a way to protest racism in his hometown of Grand Saline, TX (my hometown), but his death did not garner limited national coverage until a month after the fact because people were quick to label him as “crazy.” (As a means to preserve his memory, I recently produced a documentary, titled Man on Fire, with director Joel Fendelman, that attempts to better understand why he found his fate in the flames and how Grand Saline reacted to his death.)

But do people even know about these self-immolations? It seems we can find coverage about self-immolations in Tibet, Tunisia, and India in major U.S. news publications and understand the reasons behind their deaths, but the discourse surrounding self-immolations in America focuses more on mental health than anything else.

We often don’t differentiate between suicide and suicide as protest in America, which dramatically alters the discourse surrounding these acts. While others regions across the globe see value in giving up one’s life as a means to help others, a form of solidarity, or an act of transcendence, in America, we more likely to dismiss such as acts as “crazy.”

In the research I conducted for my dissertation, Preaching behind the Fiery Pulpit: Rhetoric, Self-Immolation, and Public Memory, and the documentary “Man on Fire,” I found that labeling a self-immolation as an extension of someone being “crazy” often occurs because we as a society believe that one’s life in America is too valuable for any cause or social issue. Though many of us look to the regimes in other countries and see self-immolation as a medium for oppressed peoples to gain a voice, we assume America’s problems cannot be that bad–or could not be perceived as that bad in relation to the rest of the world. That’s why when stories like Buckel’s death garner headlines, the issues at the core of the self-immolation, such as environmental concerns, racism, and Trump’s presidency, never produce a national conversation: We believe none of these problems could ever warrant someone killing themselves.

In light of Buckel’s death, we need to reconsider how we talk about self-immolations in America. Those who choose the flame don’t often have histories of mental illness (which is too easy of an argument and too dismissive of the act anyways). They usually embody a national pain or important cause, and their deaths deserve more than sensationalized headlines and undeveloped commentary about mental illness.

In the case of Moore’s death in Grand Saline, he was quickly referred to as a “Madman or Martyr?” in the news and issues of racism in town never became the focal point in local and regional coverage. Why not reframe this conversation and question what heinous of acts of racism drove this man to light himself on fire? While the headlines surrounding Buckel’s self-immolation have been more empathetic, we still need more of a conversation around environmental destruction and how societal stagnation compelled Buckel to react. The impulse to delegitimize is easy, but if we ever want to come to terms with self-immolation as protest, to better understand what is captivating people to choose the flame around the globe, we have to reframe these conversations to look at self-immolators as products of an environment, not people who are “insane.”

Timothy Dickinson, a scholar based in Washington D.C., once noted on self-immolation: “Fire is the most dreaded of all forms of death…The sight of someone setting themselves on fire is simultaneously an assertion of intolerability and, frankly, of moral superiority….It’s not that [the self-immolator] is trying to tell me something, but that he’s commanding me.”

Instead of moving back to commonplace arguments against those who self-immolate, let’s allow their symbolic deaths to command us–to listen and reflect on the pain endured literally and figuratively–so that these deaths receive the attention they brutally deserve.


On Losing a Home (Grand Saline, TX)

“The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” —Maya Angelou

Growing up in the small town of Grand Saline, TX, I always felt different, especially since I could never get accustomed to the country culture. As a kid, I did not like usual activities like hunting and fishing. Driving big trucks and riding four wheelers were not on the list of hobbies I enjoyed. Actually, I remember being ready for bigger cities when it was close to my high school graduation. I had been preparing for college for most of my life, and I was ready to take on the next chapter of my life. But I never imagined having a longing for home, a feeling of safety in the streets of my adolescence, the freedom from responsibilities, the captivating moments of football on Friday nights, that came when leaving for college. One of the most interesting aspects of leaving your hometown, besides being on your own for the first time in your life, is the way that your perception of “home” changes, especially for me in rural East Texas. With each passing year away from home, I felt more connected to my hometown space, even though I felt “different” being raised there.

But all of that changed, recently.


On June 23, 2014, Rev. Charles Moore self-immolated in my hometown of Grand Saline, TX to protest racism. That truth is undeniable and affected me personally and emotionally, and arguably altered my life. I remember hearing racist stories as a kid in Grand Saline and often brushed them off. I had a strong personality, and even when people called me “Beaner” or “Wetback” I could go along with the joke and not feel uncomfortable in my own skin. When a coach made a racist remark toward an opposing team’s black player, I never thought of his intentions as cruel. When my high school football team chanted, “We’re alright, cuz we’re all white!” in front of other citizens in town, I never thought of the implications of those words. This makes me unique, in some ways, because many other people have to live with those pains on a constant basis, but I was able to play them off, until I really started racism.

I became outspoken on issues of race and racism whenever I first realized that race was rhetorical, that it was a way to position people and communities, a marker of identity, a site of pain, and was, believe it or not, epistemological. When I first read scholarship on race and rhetoric, in 2012 and 2013, I knew I found a niche in my studies, something that uniquely spoke to me in ways that no other rhetorical scholarship ever has. It led to an overwhelming response of memory, taking me back to stories and words stated in my hometown. Ultimately, this drove me to openly and publicly critiquing the culture in which I was raised, not to defame people or label the town of Grand Saline as “racist,” but, rather, to help change the town that I deeply care about.

The town’s problem, to me, is that it has oddly wrapped itself in racist folklore. This folklore ranges from stories describing lynchings that took place at the Poletown Bridge to tales that the KKK once met in the woods at Clark’s Ferry. Some people in town even believe the stories are not just tall-tales but are truths still being played out in Grand Saline today. These stories were told to me soon when I moved into town, and after completing interviews with over 50 people in Grand Saline and around the area, I can state firmly that these are stories that mostly everyone knows. Actually, I have not met a single Grand Saline resident who could not name at least one racist folklore about the town.


That fact is what makes Grand Saline exceptional: not that the town has some actual recorded history of racial violence (the history is pretty similar to most other rural towns across the South) but that they have a history of this folklore, much of which seems untrue. Yet, and this is a major point, this folklore is what some in town and many in surrounding towns believe is true. It is what makes the perception of racism in Grand Saline one of the most well-known stories in all of East Texas. Some have even declared the story of racism in Grand Saline parallels that of Vidor (a town riddled with racist events). A lawyer discussing a discriminatory lawsuit against Grand Saline in the 1980s even stated that the KKK doesn’t have to be out in the open there because the KKK’s values are engrained in the town’s culture. Unfortunately, the town’s circulation of the stories keeps the folklore intact and marks the town as racist to outsiders. While some of these stories are told by people outside of town, the fact students who have just graduated from high school there can recite this folklore is telling (I have interviewed a few of them).


This past weekend I went to town to work on my film project regarding Charles Moore and Grand Saline. I received the most hate I have had to date from town members (I will not mention all of this here). Some claim I want to defame the town; others say my film is about #BlackLivesMatter (a group I support and will defend but which has nothing to do with the film), but the outcry was real, and sudden, and…hurt me. Since my views on race and racism changed drastically in grad school, I have had many debates with friends on social media. But at the end of the day, I still felt like these people love me and understand me (most still do). However, as I went to bed on Friday night after hearing from multiple people what the town thinks about am me (some comments I had received from some people I know, some from others I don’t), I could not help but think I no longer had that “home” that Maya Angelou describes in the epigraph above. I no longer feel safe in Grand Saline (not that someone would actually harm me) because I get those stares, those stares that suggest I am not the same as the people. I am an outsider. I am different. I do not represent them.

As much as I have wanted to help Grand Saline, my relationship to it has changed drastically. Though I remember all the fond moments of my adolescence and cherish them, they are tainted by my present situation.

I hope when this film comes out and I publish my monograph that maybe some people will open up to the work I have done over the last few years. I know some people will for sure, but I also know that there are many who peg me as a “race-baiter” and will not take to anything I do in a positive light. I have become okay with that, now. But really I just want people to know that I only have the best intentions, whether they agree with them or not. This might fall on deaf ears, but it needed to be said.

Grand Saline, you may not be my safe home anymore, but I promise not to abandon you when the tides get choppy.

A post from me, about two months before Moore self-immolated, already thinking about writing about self-immolation as an act of protest. I often think of this post when considering my relationship to Moore and Grand Saline.

When Charles Moore killed himself on that fateful day, he died believing someone would tell his story. He died wanting to make change (though we might disagree with his perception of truth, he still understood part of the culture of Grand Saline). I have told people ever since that if I ever had one story to tell in my life, it was this. I feel cosmically connected to Moore and his act. And I can only hope that the story he began can be completed with me.

Civil Rights Bus Day Tour–Day 5

On the final full day of the bus tour, we spent our time going around Memphis and visiting important historical sites. The rain was coming down heavy this morning as we hopped on the bus and headed to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. Friends had told me how unnerving this site was for them, and I think was intensified by the rain following us this morning. We walked past the famous Lorraine Motel sign, with its pristine restoration, and in front of the motel on our way to the lobby. There, roughly twenty feet away, was the balcony I have seen memorialized in images, movies, and textbooks my entire life: the place where MLK was assassinated on April 4th, 1968. While everyone was running to get in from the rain, I stood for a moment, remembering the images I have seen in black and white my entire life. I don’t think I was truly prepared to take in everything that followed.

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Inside, we made our way through the museum quickly because we only had 2.5 hours before we had to meet for lunch, but I immediately understood how visitors could spend hours, even an entire day, going through the exhibit. I will touch on a couple of these exhibits here before getting to my main point of intrigue. First, the Rosa Parks and sit-in sections of the museum stood out for their liveliness. Both had replicas of what it would be like on a bus during the boycotts and to sit at a lunch counter if you were protesting civil rights. This forced me to see the experience for what it was: a frightening, oppressing moment in American history. While textbooks often glance over these event quickly, the museum forces participants to see the reality of the pain, hear the slurs, and witness the hatred firsthand. These first two exhibits stood out for their molding of reality.

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But I knew I had to move quickly through the first part of the museum to get to one of more intriguing, yet also icky feeling, parts of the tour: the construction and maintenance of the place where MLK died and where the sniper stood to shoot him. Towards the end of the first building of the museum, participants get to stand next to the room where MLK last stayed before getting shot. The curators reconstructed the room to represent what it looked like on the night MLK died. While I am sure the curators contend they do this to persevere history and help people see what it truly looked like on the fateful day, I couldn’t help but feel awkward. I felt as if we were staring into the intimacy of a terrible event and could not explain why people would want to see this image. But this feeling was expanded when in the second building you are able to walk to the space where the sniper stood when he took out MLK. The museum openly touts this space and even allows visitors to go to a window similar right next to the actual window (that they keep under protective glass) to see what the sniper would have seen. I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable that places choose to glorify sites like this. But it made me wonder if this was due to popular demand or if they museum knew what people really wanted to see.

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After we finished with the museum we ate lunch on site and got back on the bus. We had two more events to accomplish: 1) visit with the sanitation protesters who helped take back their wages and civil rights in the city and 2) do a driving tour of the city. We met with three sanitation workers who took part in the famous “I am a man” strike in the late-1960s. The strikers explained the motives for taking part in the protest, the harsh conditions they worked in, and how they set the stage for better equality in the city and nation-wide as well. One of the men even stated that Obama told him that he wasn’t sure if he would be president today if it was not for the work they completed in the city. Overall, these three men represent how change can take place on the small scale, without national figures being involved directly. They brought the attention to themselves which garnered more publicity and pressure on the city to give them decent wages and benefits.

Lastly, we meet with Elaine Turner to end our day of activities, and she drove us around the city to visit important historical places like the First Baptist Church on Bealle Street, Slave Haven, and other sites. The place that stood out the most was the Mason Temple, where MLK gave his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech the night before he was killed. We walked into the temple and saw an image similar to the balcony of the Lorraine motel: a place I have seen in videos and images but have never thought about in reality. I was able to walk around and actually stand where MLK proclaimed the truth. I kept thinking about how fateful that night must have seemed to many at the time, MLK saying he had seen the mountaintop the night before he was murdered, and I imagined being in the audience cheering on with the thousands of others who were glad to see the civil rights hero among them. It was such a surreal moment, much like the Lorraine Motel, and I don’t think I will ever forget how awe-struck I was at the temple.

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Our final full day on the tour could be defined by its harrowing nature because compared to other sites we had visited on the tour, the MLK history was the stuff we need early in our education. I remember even performing the “I Have a Dream” speech in third grade for a play. Thus, when we saw the MLK history in the material realms of Memphis hit a different nerve. I am actually glad that this day in Memphis was our final full day because I am not sure if I could emotionally handle much more days like that day. And that icky state has stayed with me, now two days removed.

Civil Rights Bus Tour–Day Four

Day four and five of the trip were long, and I spent these nights trying to have fun and resting rather than blogging my trip. Really what I have learned is blogging every single day of a trip is a tough task, and I couldn’t live up to the task. My plan, as of right now, is to blog day four of my adventure tonight (the night my trip ended) and do my blog for the fifth day and today’s adventures tomorrow. Sorry for the late blogs for those following, but I think both of these days will be more interesting with more time to reflect.

On the morning of March 9th, we awoke from Indianola and began our journey out of the Delta. Our first stop on this trip north was at the University of Mississippi campus in Oxford. In our class, we had learned about the riot that took place with James Meredith on the campus, briefly, and were going to take a tour of the campus before meeting with Charles W. Eagles, the “foremost” expert on James Meredith and the Ole Miss campus, and also student leaders on the campus who took charge in taking down the state flag (a version of the Confederate Flag). Arriving on the campus in the late morning, I was surprised by its beauty. The grove, the trees, the campus all painted pictures of the gallant South, the stories that cover our memories of the South and what it represents.

But checking underneath the surface of this superficial beauty changed my opinion of the campus quickly.

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Walking around the first campus of the building I found some very disturbing wall art, art that should have been removed for its racial insensitivity a long time ago. The pictures here demonstrate Native Americans dancing like tropes and black people appearing in an unusual ways as well. This was literally the first thing I saw when looking around the campus and changed how I saw everything moving forward. Next we walked around the circle where the riots took place on campus, and I tried envisioning the hostility of the area. Maybe it was just like the Trump rally that just took place in Chicago. I close my eyes and try to picture white people screaming and yelling hatred at Meredith and officials guarding him. But I have never seen this open hatred before, and it is hard to imagine.

At the front of this circle were two Confederate shrines: 1) a Confederate statue placed by the county in the late-1800s, which calls for recondition of all the soldiers who died for the South. 2) a Confederate stain glass window still portrayed its beauty for all those entering one of the oldest buildings on campus on the circle. I was surprised both of these artifacts still stood in light of the conversations of the flag on campus and the removal of other Confederate memorabilia across the United States. But both of them stood out as stark reminders of the “heritage” argument that still calls for love of the Confederacy in the South.

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With these public memories, the last object that stood out on campus was the monument to James Meredith, near the administration building. The Meredith statue is an erect, life-size version of Meredith walking towards the front of the school with quotes from Meredith and others about his inspiration. The statue is an important reminder of the history of the school, but I found it interesting how the school misconstrued Meredith’s words for their own gain. (I’m saving some of this for an article I am writing so I do not want to add much more detail here, but there is SO much analysis that can be done with the Meredith statue). After our tour of campus, we met with Eagles and the ladies who helped take down the flag, had lunch with them, and left the campus.

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We took off for Memphis after leaving Oxford and first stopped at the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center before turning in for dinner and the hotel for the evening. Here we had more of a learning exercise rather than a historical one and talked about team-building, various forms of power, and the different parts of justice work that convene to create change. The two hour session allowed us to bounce ideas of advocacy, agitation, and other parts of justice work together and consider what our passions are as individuals and the power we have when we work together. The Mid-South Center does terrific work for the people of Memphis and was a great change of pace for us during the middle of our trip.

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Day Four ended on a different note, one that allowed me to see the ways I should reconsider power and collaboration, but the time spent on the Ole Miss campus reinvigorated my interests in public memory and sparked ideas for future articles that I hope to begin putting together over the next few weeks. While I loved the history and sites we visited in Jackson and the Delta, it was the campus that really stood out as showcasing how gatekeepers construct public memories for individuals. I think this experience will shape my research for years to come.

TCU Civil Rights Bus Tour–Day Three

Charles McLaurin entered our small breakfast group the morning of March 8th and rotated around the group inconspicuously. Eventually I made my way to him and shook his hand. “You know,” he leaned in to tell me, “you and me couldn’t have been here in 1962. And if we were here, that would mean they were gonna hang the both of us.” So began the third day of the civil rights bus tour.

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McLaurin is a bit of a legend in the Mississippi Delta. He was a key member of the SNCC movement in the area and has been arrested over forty times in his life for agitating unjust laws and authorities. He had been a key supporter of Fannie Lou Hamer and was the field organizer who led much of the Freedom Summer registration in Sunflower County. Arguably, McLaurin is one of the most important civil rights leaders who is still living today, and it was a special honor to spend the day touring the civil rights history of the Delta with him.

Our bus drove through many small cities in the Delta today, including Ruleville, Greenville, Indianola, Drew, and Glendora. Instead of touching on each city I want to highlight a couple of important moments in the day that stood out.

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First, in Ruleville, we visited the Fannie Lou Hamer Garden and Museum. Compared to most other museums I have visited throughout my life, this place seemed much less fortunate. They didn’t have the funds to support the beautiful site that Hamer deserves, yet people in the community had still fought to have Hamer remembered. This made me realize how vital it is to have people fight for the local histories, especially when the state doesn’t explicitly support them. I felt a deeper desire to help certain museums financially and in any other capacity in my future.

But the funds the museum has raised helped memorialize the legacy of Hamer. Still to this day, you can see a twinkle in McLaurin’s eyes when he speaks of her, and as he and a curator guided us through the exhibit, I learned not only more on Hamer’s desire, but also the struggle involved in keeping her story alive. The museum also purchased a beautiful lot where Hamer is buried and built a monument to her honor there. The statue, showing Hamer in her favorite stance as an organizer, distinguishes itself from other statues. Together, seeing the history combined with local people’s efforts to maintain it, marks her museum and park as a special place that I will remember forever.

Next, we visited the museum for Emmett Till and also the small store where he was first accused of soliciting a white woman. The museum in the small town of Glendora is surrounded by the impoverished. All the houses in town are crumbling and have been left behind by modern society and state money. Yet, still this community support the Till museum in the old barn where he was actually tortured and murdered. Most amazingly at this site, the curators have constructed a coffin and a fake, disconfigured body that resembles the horrific shape of Till’s open casket funeral. It seems, rhetorically speaking, the museum fulfills the same purpose that Till’s mother wanted in having the open casket: they want visitors to feel that visceral, complex reaction in seeing the brutality of racism.

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Today taught me a lot on not just the history of civil rights but also the ways people keep memory alive. I see it in the fight for funds and grants, I see it in the unique placement of plaques and memorials, and I see it in the visual reminders of the harsh world around us. The Delta has to fight for their history. They do not have the national spotlight that places like Selma, Birmingham, and even Memphis do. Thus, the have to go through greater struggles and more hoops to remain an important part of history. Seeing how people like McLaurin and even local sites tell their stories gives me all the inspiration I need to keep researching how rhetorics of public memory affect histories and communities.

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Civil Rights Bus Tour– Day 2

Well, the wifi at our hotel is crummy, so I will be writing this post (and probably the next) from my phone. That probably means these will both be shorter because I really don’t want to write frommy phone.

Today was a long and tiring journey. We woke up and ate breakfast at the hotel and left for our first stop. Jackson is an interesting city. The downtown district and communities near Jackson State University shows how impoverished the city and state are. On one street we drove down today, we literally saw ten total houses that were all abandoned and decaying. These streets once held a vibrant a black community and we’re one of the homes of the modern civil rights struggle. Yet these failing infrastructures reminded me of how quick we are able to forget our roots. 

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We stopped on the edge of Jackson State University at was once the home of COFO. COFO was the group formed by SNCC, NAACP, SCLC, and CORE, and was pioneered by Bob Moses in Mississippi. Today we met Keith McMillan who is the COFO headquarters curator. He began by telling the history of the movement and the building. Most interesting to me was that the state of Mississippi didn’t even recognize the site with a historical marker until 2011.

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Once we finished our quick discussion, we took the short walk to the Jackson Masonic Lodge, which also housed (and still houses) the NAACP during the 1960s. Here we met Frank Figures, a local historian, who filled us in on the history of the building and it’s importance in the movement. We were actually standing in a site where the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party organized caucuses, where Medgar Evers ran the local movement, and where Freedom Riders had lessons in the early 1960s. Remarkably the bullet holes that had been shot into the NAACP offices in the 1960s, more than five of them, still remained reminders of the town’s tragic history.

Once we left the lodge, we headed back to COFO and talked to two local legends: Flonzie Brown Wright and Hollis Watkins. Both of these people had been a part of the movement in the 1960s and had stayed in the area afterwards to keep up the good fight. Most interstingly both of them were stark contrasts of the nonviolent leaders we imagine: both carried weapons and were not afraid to use them in defense. Wright even stated that she believed the whole nonviolence stance on national level was only pragmatic, most local people actually would resort to violence if push came to shove.

We finished our meeting with these two legends by singing a few liberation hymns, and Watkins led the charge in getting us involved in harmonizing. After a quick lunch in the office, we headed out on a more thorough tour of Jackson. First, we took in the Jackson State Tragedy memorial on campus. The tragedy parallels the Kent State killings, and these two events were only eleven days apart. Here, two black students were murdered (supposedly by police) and eleven were injured on campus. The crime was never solved. Again, the state of Mississippi only put up a plaque to honor these students in 2009 or 2010.

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In our last big stop for the day, we visited Medgar Evers house, the location he was shot and killed in the early-1960s, which sparked much of the civil rights movement in Mississippi. The home is now a museum, and we were able to walk through the home and still see the bullet hole from the shot that killed Evers. The visceral effect of being in the place we’re a man died for a cause was unnerving. I felt moved but also helpless. But overall, I couldn’t help but think that Evers life meant something. In dying, he became a martyr, one who has evolved into a legend in local lore.

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The day ended with a dinner on our way to Indianola. We got to the hotel at 9 and will be travelling through the Delta the next two days.

I will be posting more on our trip in the upcoming days and hope you continue to track our journey together. Thanks!


Civil Rights Bus Tour– Day One

“People ask me why I go after these old murderers in the KKK, years after their crimes,” Jerry Mitchell told a crowded room of TCU students tonight in Jackson, Mississippi. The audience was silent. “These are young killers, I tell them. They just happen to get old.”


Today marked the first leg of TCU’s civil rights bus tour through the Mississippi Delta, Memphis, and Little Rock. We left Fort Worth this morning at 9:00 am heading east and didn’t stop until we made it to Ruston, Louisiana, only a few hours out from Jackson. While Ruston was not on our scenic tour in the South, I learned from my colleagues about its history. In 1938, a 19 year-old black boy, R.C. Williams, was lynched. As the town mob burned him to death, they actually put out the flames for a moment so they could get his fingerprints. Then they re-lit the fire and murdered Williams. The story of Williams illustrates the utter ignorance of racial hatred, the idea that a mob found a man guilty without giving him a fair trial, and while killing him decide it might be best to get his fingerprints. This story, while not even an actual historical moment on our stop, sheds light on the work we are doing as a class. We are digging up old bones, histories people want to forget. And as we keep digging under new rocks, we keep finding more and more bones.

After lunch in Ruston, we made it into Jackson around 4:30 pm, giving us just enough time to get some rest before leaving for dinner at 5:30. Though I was tired after the long trip, I was interested in having our dinner with Jerry Mitchell. Reading his biography on our trip taught me that he had uncovered truths about infamous KKK murders, leading to high-profile arrests and murder convictions decades after the slayings in the 1960s. We left for dinner in northern Jackson at Sal and Mookie’s. The pizza was delicious but even more incredible was meeting Jerry Mitchell.


Mitchell, a fifty-five year-old reporter in Jackson, has had an incredible life. In 1989, he watched the film Mississippi Burning that sparked a desire in him. Mitchell wanted to actually investigate who committed some of these murders and atrocities in the Civil Rights South. First, he was able to investigate one Klansman for the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi. Next he put a KKK leader, Sam Bowers, behind bars for his involvement in the bombing of Vernon Dahmer. More recently, he has helped convict Bobby Cherry and Edgar Ray Killen for their crimes in the Birmingham church bombing and the murders of the three civil rights workers outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi.

His work garnered him a Pulitzer Prize in Journalism and a MacArthur “Genius Grant” as well. In his speech to TCU students tonight, Mitchell attributed his success to his own desire for truth. Truth is what can lead us to reconciliation. Truth is not just acknowledging history but making it matter. Truth is taking these “old KKK murders” and making them pay for the crimes they committed decades ago. Even when faced with multitudes of death threats and slurs, Mitchell states that he tries to live fearlessly. “Living fearlessly doesn’t mean not having fear,” he told us. “Rather, it is knowing that you are doing something greater than yourself.” The fear only lets him know that he is on the right path.

Mitchell was a fascinating person to talk to on our bus trip and was a wonderful person to end our first day. Although we did more traveling and less site-seeing, he inspired many of the students in his talk. On the bus heading home, everyone was discussing what he said, how he affected them personally, and how his talk applies to their understanding of civil rights. I have similar a feeling. My dissertation studies why a white preacher (Charles Moore) in my hometown of Grand Saline, TX decided to self-immolate on a summer day in 2014. The preacher claimed the town was racist and he wanted them reconcile their history with their present, to move past their old biases. The town rejected his claim outright.

But truth…truth matters.

Truth matters enough to Mitchell that he has dedicated his life over the past twenty-five years to investigating KKK crimes against black people in South. Truth matters to Charles Moore and his commitment to self-immolating in hopes that it could bring some form of justice. Truth matters to me too, and that is why I believe my dissertation is so engrained in my identity. Truth is all I can ever hope for.

At the end of the evening, I told Mitchell about my work, and he graciously gave me his card and told him to email him information about the case. I am thankful that he would even consider talking with me about my work, but it also provided me with my own “truth” for the evening: people like Mitchell will always want to lend an extra hand because they understand how valuable and pertinent the hard fight for the truth is.


That wraps up the first day for our TCU trip. I hope to post again tomorrow. Please feel free to share this with your friends and family and follow our journey along the rest of the way!

2016 Syllabus: “The Rhetorics and Arguments of Race in the 21st Century”



Course Description: Though many have dubbed the age of Obama as “post-racial,” race still plays an important role in the identity, classification, and context of millions of Americans around our nation today. Arguably, since the struggles of civil rights in the 1960s, race has transformed to a more complicated matter, one which is often hard to define, but is often a constant variable in the news and in many people’s lives. The purpose of our class will be then to investigate race’s evolution as a rhetorical identity and to argue about how it shapes our contemporary society.

To begin, the role of our class is to first understand race is rhetorical and affects the real world, and then we will begin to create arguments about race. More specifically, we will learn to compose arguments about race’s role in theoretical terms, identity, culture, and consciousness. Our readings will pair with our assignments to generate recent debates and opinions surrounding race (for instance, the Ferguson and Baltimore protests and Confederate Flag debate), and students will work toward analyzing the role of race as a headline, as a topic of pain, as a subject of memory, and as a marker of identity.

Since the rhetorical nature of race often is politically charged and full of “hot takes,” this class will focus on race with a critical but sensitive lens, emphasizing understanding, empathy, and writing about not only personal viewpoints but the views of others as well.  I ask for all students to be respectful of others in this classroom, be open to opposing perspectives, and be willing to challenge your own presumptions about racial topics. While the purpose of this course is not to dictate a single ideology of race, we should be mindful of respectful of all viewpoints in this class. This goes for you and me.

Overall, our class will expand on race’s function in the contemporary world, and we will work together to explore how an understanding of race enriches our knowledge of American culture and society.

This course, like all courses at TCU, has certain outcomes that should be achieved by the end of the semester that are specific to our program and to this specific course. These outcomes are goals to work toward success in this classroom and should be conscious guides in thinking and writing in our classroom:

  1. Students will demonstrate facility with the language and analysis of argument
  • Will be able to employ various analytical tools, including the techniques of Bitzer and Toulmin, to construct arguments
  • Will be able to demonstrate a knowledge of critical race theory’s rhetorical terms in creating an argument within various papers and assignments
  • Will be able to utilize the language of argumentation and critical race theory in constructing individual papers and in analyzing other’s arguments
  1. Students will demonstrate the ability to write an argument for a specific rhetorical situation
  • Will be able to write varying arguments for different genres (manifestos, book reviews, legal arguments, public memory arguments)
  1. Students will demonstrate competency in using sources (primary, secondary, electronic) in argument construction
  • Will demonstrate knowledge in finding credible sources that help create an argument in varying assignments
  1. Students will demonstrate the ability to critically engage with digital environments
  • Will be able to analyze and argue about digital spaces and content
  • Will effectively use digital media in presenting book reviews and manifestos


Required Textbooks:

Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic. Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, Second Edition. 2012.


ISBN-13: 978-0814721353.  $15 on Amazon. $20 through publisher.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. 2015. ISBN-13: 978-0812993547

$15 on Amazon. $24 hardcover through publisher.

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. 2012. ISBN-13: 978-1595586438

$11 on Amazon. $15 through website.

Various articles will be provided in class

Other Required Materials: 


  • Around $20 for photocopying expenses  
  • A pocket folder to contain your writings
  • A notebook for notes



Classroom Assignments Breakdown:

Application of CRT Term Paper (3 pages) – 15%

Race and Law Paper (7 pages) – 20%

Race and Public Memory Paper (5 pages) – 20%

Book Review Project (presentation) – 15%

Race Manifesto (5 pages, plus presentation) – 20%

Class Discussion- 10%

Course Requirements

  1. CRT Term Paper –Very early in the semester, we will be analyzing and discussing the language of race in the 21st century, stemming from the emerging field of critical race theory. Our very first conversations and readings in the class will be dissecting rhetorical terms from this theory and applying them to real world situations (outside of legal cases, which will come later in the semester). For our first assignment, then, you will be taking a term we discuss in class involving critical race theory (found in various readings and in an appendix) and will apply this term to a real situation that you see in the world or in the news (spanning over the last few years). You will specifically choose a case study from a news story, real world event, or popular culture to write this paper. Since critical race theory provides a lens for understanding and interpreting race in contemporary society, you will be able to take a term from this theory and better understand its rhetorical and cultural nature. For example, if you choose the term “unconscious racism,” you might apply this to the news stories covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—where white people “stealing” food were labelled as “survivors” and black people “stealing” food were labelled as “looters.” Since CRT will be our lens of interpretation the rest of this semester, this first paper will provide the means to further construct arguments for all other assignments. You will achieve course outcomes #1 and #2 through first learning the language of cultural argument in studying your term and then producing a persuasive paper that demonstrates your knowledge of the definition, function, and rhetorical nature of this term in society.


  1. Race and Law Paper– Our second paper of the semester will interrogate the way that laws and understandings/definitions of race intersect. Since the year 2000, there have been many legal cases, even in the Supreme Court, dealing with race, such as anti-discrimination laws, overturning the Voting Rights Act, and cases on affirmative action too. After reading The New Jim Crow and discussing various legal cases/issues on race in class, you will be asked to write a paper in which you investigate the ways various laws, legal cases, and/or (un)lawful situations affect how either the American public interprets race or how the legal system interprets race. The purpose of this assignment will be to better understand how your legal case constructs, enacts, or produces race in America through a lens of critical race theory and critical legal studies. You will be asked to use the language of CRT to analyze your legal situation and to construct arguments. This paper will help you achieve course outcomes #1, #2, and #3 by asking you to construct an argument about a legal case (a specific rhetorical genre) and to utilize several primary and secondary sources to produce your finished assignment.


  1. Race and Public Memory Paper– Over the past year, America has witnessed the #BlackLivesMatter movement reappropriate sites, statues, and symbols of public memory. The Confederate Flag was removed from the South Carolina statehouse due to a change in public perception/memory on its rhetorical usage and even monuments to the Confederacy were vandalized and tagged with #BlackLivesMatter in protest of the whitewashing of history. For this paper, you will investigate the rhetorical nature of a site, statue, or symbol of contested racial memory, such as the Confederate Flag or statues to Confederate generals, and will analyze how various racial groups have varying interpretations of the same symbolic structure. Your argument will not lead you to declaring one side is right and one side is not, but rather you will create a case for better understanding the site as an argument within itself. In class, we will discuss types of public memory, its rhetorical strategies, and will analyze various structures. This paper will help you achieve course outcomes #1, #2, #3, and #4 through building an argument about a site of public memory, utilizing rhetorical tools to understand the idea of “public memory,” and incorporating various visual and technological sources to promote your argument of this site.


  1. Book Review Project– At the beginning of the semester, I will provide a list of 25 books in the class that cover race and rhetoric in the 21st century. In groups of three (dependent on how many students are in class), you will choose one book to read as a group. In the last half of the semester, I will provide dates for each group to give a presentation of their book to the class. For this assignment, I will ask you to present your book in 15-20 minutes, to cover the book’s aim, audience, reason for writing, and other rhetorical devices, to the classroom. On this date, you will also turn in a three page response in which the group summarizes the book and explains the most intriguing parts of the author’s analysis. We will talk more about this presentation early in the semester, and I will provide the class with a book list and dates for their presentation within the first week of classes. This paper will help you achieve course outcomes #1, #2, and #4 through building an implicit argument about your book (or, rather, understanding the argument of your book), utilizing a set of skills needed the book review genre, and employing visual and technological tools to aid your presentation.


  1. Race Manifesto– Your final paper for the semester will be a race manifesto covering any subject/topic/idea that we covered throughout the semester. This will be a final summative project consisting of original research in the field on any racial topic that you choose but must offer the following: 1) An original thesis claim that provides “new” insight into race or race relations in the 21st century; 2) Research that supports such claims; and 3) An explanation for how this helps America better understand race/race relations. I want this topic to be as open-ended as possible, and the basis of your manifesto can come from any research, analysis, or topics that we have talked about in class or from anything outside of our readings as well. Finally, you will also give a brief presentation of your manifesto to the class during our final exam time. We will talk about this project occasionally throughout the semester so you can start taking notes for ideas, but our final few weeks of this semester will be spent directly working on this assignment. This paper and presentation will help you achieve course outcomes #1, #2, #3, and #4 though building an original argument about the state of race in America with primary and secondary sources, employing specific rhetorical tools for the genre of a manifesto, and utilizing visual and technological tools to aid your presentation.


  1. Class Discussion– Class discussion is important in this course for two reasons: 1) Writing well is essentially communicating well, so being able to discuss your ideas and thoughts with others potentially could help your writing. Since this course is workshop/discussion based, we need participation to move our conversations along. 2) Talking about race is hard. We have all seen people get mad and start yelling when race becomes a subject. But our class should be an open place to talk about race, especially when our opinions differ. While I understand many often fear being called a racist and this is what hinders so many racial conversations, you must participate to earn these points and to be a full member of the class.


Course Calendar (Subject to Change)

Week 1: The Foundations of Race in America

Tuesday, 1/12- Introductions; Class Overview; discussion of race in America

Thursday, 1/14-Introduction to Critical Race Theory; rhetoric and CRT; first assignment; book review sign-up

Week 2: Critical Race Theory, Part 1

Tuesday, 1/19- Readings Due: First two chapters of CRT book (30 pages); discuss basic principles of CRT; connect to rhetoric

Thursday, 1/21- Readings Due: Chapters 3 and 4 of CRT book (29 pages); discuss counterstorytelling and essentialism/antiessentialism as rhetorical acts; discuss structure of paper

Week 3: Critical Race Theory, Part 2

Tuesday, 1/26- Readings Due: Chapters 5 and 7 (50 pages); Discussion of paper progress; Mapping out papers; connecting theory to reality (examples); rhetorical arguments

Thursday, 1/28- WORKSHOP DAY

Week 4: Race and the Legal System

Tuesday, 2/2- CRT Paper Due; Discussion of new assignment; lecture on race and legal system

Thursday, 2/4- Readings Due: “Introduction” and “The Rebirth of Caste” in The New Jim Crow; discuss legal precedent in the history of race; brainstorm paper ideas

Week 5: “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!”

Tuesday, 2/9- Readings Due: “The New Jim Crow” in The New Jim Crow; workshop thesis statements

Thursday, 2/11- Readings Due: Various readings on Ferguson, Baltimore, and #BlackLivesMatter;  discussion on legal resources/databases; structure of paper

Week 6: Finalizing Paper Details

Tuesday, 2/16- Paper progress report, mapping papers

Thursday, 2/18- WORKSHOP DAY, finalizing paper details

Week 7: Contested Sites of Racial Memory

Tuesday, 2/23- Race and Law Paper Due; introduction to Public Memory Assignment; what are public memory and sites of public memory?

Thursday, 2/25- Readings Due: “Reappropration of Public Memory” (PDF); and “Sparring with Public Memory” (PDF); discussion of sites chosen for public memory

Week 8: Remembering, Disremembering, and Erasure

Tuesday, 3/1- Analyzing sites of public memory; erasing history; workshopping thesis statements

Thursday, 3/3- Readings Due: “Chicago Contested Memories” and the History of Mike Brown’s memorial (will give various reads in class); explore rhetorical means of contestation


Week 10: Whiteness and Fulfilling Place and Memory

Tuesday, 3/15- Readings Due: “Tradition and Southern Confederate Culture;” discussion on space and whiteness; analyzing space, structure, and place

Thursday, 3/17- Shaping paper; the rhetoric of memory; secondary sources

Week 11: Whiteness and Fulfilling Place and Memory

Tuesday, 3/22- Readings Due: “Whitewashing the Past;” use of visuals in paper

Thursday, 3/24- Readings Due: “Tradition and Southern Confederate Culture: Manifesting Whiteness through Public Memory at Texas A&M University;” finalizing analysis

Week 12: Finalizing Race and Public Memory Paper

Tuesday, 3/29- WORKSHOP DAY

Thursday, 3/31- Race and Public Memory Paper Due; Introduction to Manifesto Paper; Read: Part I Between the World and Me; discuss racial contexts

Week 13: Transitioning Public Memories to Manifestos

Tuesday, 4/5- Book Reviews; Read: Part II Between the World and Me; discuss rhetorical conventions of Coates; thesis statements; rhetorical genre of manifesto

Thursday, 4/7- Book Reviews; rhetorical strategies of manifestos;

Week 14: The Pain of Race and Coates

Tuesday, 4/12- Book Reviews; Read: Cornel West, Race Matters (Excerpt PDF); discuss West’s rhetorical strategies (especially Christian dogma); idea shares

Thursday, 4/14- Mapping papers; structure of paper discussion

Week 15: Prophecy, Christianity, and Deliverance 

Tuesday, 4/19 – Read: Derrick Bell, And we are not saved (Excerpt PDF); discuss Bell’s rhetorical strategies; mapping paper

Thursday, 4/21- DRAFT DAY

Week 16: Final Preparations on Manifesto

Tuesday, 4/26- Final touches on paper; last minute questions/details; workshopping ideas

Thursday, 4/28- STUDY DAY, no class


Tuesday Race manifesto presentations will be due at the final exam date provided on the TCU Calendar 


On Forgetting


“On memory and forgetting: “In other words, to use an image from computers, an individual remembers by making a backup file that is different than the original. The act of recall cannot take place without corrupting this original file in some way, because the backup writes over the earlier data. It is a binary with a life of its own, a blemish in a quadrant. This blemish erases the original as soon as memory is activated or even while the ‘file’ is inert.” –Norman M. Klein, The History of Forgetting

“Most things are forgotten over time. Even the war itself, the life-and-death struggle people went through is now like something from the distant past. We’re so caught up in our everyday lives that events of the past are no longer in orbit around our minds. There are just too many things we have to think about everyday, too many new things we have to learn. But still, no matter how much time passes, no matter what takes place in the interim, there are some things we can never assign to oblivion, memories we can never rub away. They remain with us forever, like a touchstone.” –Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore


“The pain, or the memory of pain, that here was literally sucked away by something nameless until only a void was left. The knowledge that this question was possible: pain that turns finally into emptiness. The knowledge that the same equation applied to everything, more or less.” –Roberto Bolano, 2666

Diamonds Crossing Train Tracks Photographer: Paul w Sharpe aka Wizard of Wonders™ "Wizard of Wonders™ All Rights Reserved copyright 2010"

Have I Lost You, Friend?, Or The Righteousness of Throwing Trash Cans


When Mookie stares down Sal’s Pizzeria towards the end of Do The Right Thing, he is perplexed with a single question: what is the right thing? After Mookie’s friend Radio Raheem dies via police brutality, the people take to the streets to find justice. Looking upon Sal’s Pizzeria, a symbolic site of whiteness and “the man,” Mookie has a choice to either start a riot against his boss, a man he gets along with, or disobey his own people, his Black brethren of Brooklyn, who need someone to pay for their crimes. Mookie’s dilemma becomes philosophical: hurt the business of someone who did him no harm because someone (symbolically) must pay as retribution or just try to shake off the storm. Thinking for a brief moment, Mookie throws a trash can into the window at Sal’s, condemning the restaurant and sealing their fate…….


Yesterday I took part in a panel at TCU for the Women and Gender Studies department. The panel was titled “Micro and Macro Aggressions: Violence, Identity, and Accessibility Online.” Along with two other scholars from the library and Communications departments, we collectively discussed the roles of access and the violence against people of color and women that occur frequently online. Specifically, I talked about the Black Lives Matter movement and how leaders reappropriate racism to support their own causes and gain followers. The talk, overall, was fascinating and had over 50 students and scholars in attendance.

But I haven’t been able to shake a question a student asked, a question I have asked myself for quite some time. A student at this event asked the panelist about how to call out friends for microaggressions. A microaggression is when someone (typically without intent) says something offensive or essentializes a group of people. For example, asking where the doctor is when a female hospital employee enters the hospital room could be a microaggression because it assumes that all men are doctors and women are nurses. The student, concerned with how to deal with these topics in the real world, asked an important question.


“What do we do when our friends say these things?” she asked politely. “I don’t want to lose my friends over them saying certain things but I also don’t want them to be offensive.” The other two panelists jumped into the conversation and began talking about ways to approach friends on the matter. “Use humor to calm the situation,” one panelist said. “That is a really tough question,” the other responded.

I hesitated to answer for a moment because a pain existed within me from my own experiences with this question. What happens when your understanding of the world differs from your friends? What happens with the racially insensitive things yours friends used to say in a joking manner don’t seem funny to you anymore? What happens to your friends when you change? Looking down for a moment, I thought about how to answer, not just for the young woman asking the question, but for me too.

“That really is a tough question to answer because I have experience with this as well,” I began to respond. “I lost many friends because of the nature of my research (investigating how residents in my hometown talk about race and racism), and I have been publicly chastised for my viewpoints.”

I took a moment before I continued because I had to find that truth for myself.

“But I think the best way to answer is to say there is no wrong or right way to handle it. It absolutely a personal choice, and we all have a line that cannot be crossed. I began losing my friends when I changed that line to better reflect who I am as a person and a scholar. I began calling out my friends when they said something racist or sexist, and I lost a few friends because of this. It hurts. It will always hurt. But you can take solace in knowing you are doing the right thing.

The Right Thing. Do I do it? Is being confrontational leading me or my friends to a better future? Maybe not….

The Right Thing? Does Mookie do it? Does throwing the trash can into the pizza place make up for the death of Radio Raheem? Maybe not….

But maybe, just maybe, the trash cans we throw, the risks we take at an attempt for justice, carry much more righteousness than we as individuals ever could. Maybe the right thing exists in simply trying.