Say their names! Won’t you please say their names?

“Hell you talmbout” is a 2015 protest song by the artist Janelle Monae and other members of her Wondaland group. The first time I heard this I was so overcome I really couldn’t speak. The rhythm of the song and the power of the words held me captive. I played it for my students in my macro practice class that week as a kick off to talking about the need for creative aspects of community organizing, and how you can use different mediums to share your message. If you have never heard the song, stop now and go listen to it on YouTube or better yet buy it on your preferred platform! As you know, or will hear, the main part of the song is a listing of the names of African Americans who died or were killed as a result of racial violence or encounters with law enforcement. There is a refrain of “say her name” or “say his name” throughout the song after names are chanted.

After the song played, we talked about which names were familiar to my students and which names were new to them. This was the fall semester of 2015 and the death of Sandra Bland was fresh on my mind. In the fall semester of 2016 I played the song again for a different group of students in the same course. We added the names of Philando Castile and Terence Crutcher. We have added new names most every fall semester which is a wake up call for some students, and a sobering reminder for others.

As I mentioned earlier, I use the song as part of a discussion of creative aspects of community organizing. You could also use the song and narrative to discuss legislative change that has happened in light of some of the racial violence (for example, the Sandra Bland Act was signed in Texas in 2017 (https://www.texastribune.org/2017/06/15/texas-gov-greg-abbott-signs-sandra-bland-act-law/). You could also use the song and narrative to discuss social and political action around legislation that needs to change, such as “stand your ground” laws (https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2020-05-21/ahmaud-arbery-and-the-lethal-outcomes-of-stand-your-ground-laws) I am sure there are many other ways you can integrate the song into your teaching; the important thing is the names get said and that we keep working for change.

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