Exploring Anti-Racism Through HBO’s ‘Watchmen’

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The School House Anti-Racism Experience will host a year of events around the show.

]: Ruins of a Black neighborhood destroyed by a white mob during the 1921 Tulsa Massacre
Ruins of a Black neighborhood destroyed by a white mob during the 1921 Tulsa Massacre. The event was featured in the HBO series ‘Watchmen’. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, American National Red Cross Collection)

The HBO series Watchmen is set in an alternate reality in which baby squid rain from the sky and Robert Redford is president. But the show opens with a very real historical event: the 1921 destruction, by a white mob, of the Tulsa, Okla., Greenwood District, home to one of the most affluent Black communities in the nation.

It’s a history most Americans never learn in school, says Craig Sutton, a professor of mathematics and the house professor of School House, one of Dartmouth’s six undergraduate residential communities. This makes seeing it depicted in the context of a fantastical fiction universe all the more powerful as a means of creating a dialogue about the ongoing legacy of racism.

That’s the hope of Sutton and the student, faculty, and staff organizers of the 2021-2022 School House Anti-Racism Experience (SHARE)—a yearlong series of watch parties, lectures, field trips, arts showcases, and more that will use Watchmen as a jumping-off point for the whole campus to engage more deeply with issues related to anti-Black racism, white supremacy, and social and economic justice.

The idea grew out of the national reckoning around race sparked by the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, Sutton says. “Tragically, we have been here before, but fundamental change feels possible in this moment and we hope this will help sustain the community’s engagement.”

Members of School House organized an antiracism coalition of students, faculty, and staff. Sutton, who had recently watched the HBO seriessuggested that Watchmen might offer a way for more members of the community to talk about social justice issues.

“The series doesn’t hide that it’s about race and structural racism, but Watchmen creatively opens multiple portals to the conversation,” Sutton says.

SHARE organizer Ananya Alleyne ’23, a member of School House from West Hartford, Conn., says, “We wanted to use Watchmen because it’s a fantasy world, but it’s related to our world. That makes it a little easier to talk about some of these things.” She says the goal of the project is to “reach as many different groups on campus as we can.”

Organizer Rosthchild Toussaint ’23, a geography major originally from Haiti, says he’s looking forward to the discussion of how events like the Tulsa massacre continue to inform the present.

“This country is very uncomfortable with the truth of a lot of its past, particularly racial injustice,” says Toussaint, a member of East Wheelock House who lives in the Shabazz living learning community. “But getting that into the open is the only way to really move forward.”

SHARE will post up-to-date information on events on their website. Events this fall include:

  • A screening of Watchmen episode 1, at 5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 26, in Loew Auditorium at the Black Family Visual Arts Center.
  • A discussion about the Tulsa race massacre, featuring Karla Slocum, the Thomas Willis Lambeth Distinguished Chair in Public Policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Jovan Lewis, an associate professor of geography at the University of California, Berkeley, at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 28, in Loew Auditorium.
  • A presentation by staff member and historian Dan Billin on the history of the Noyes Academy, a racially integrated school in Canaan, N.H., founded by abolitionists, that was destroyed by a white mob in 1835, at 10 a.m., Oct.2, at the Cube.
  • A field trip to the site of the Noyes Academy, led by members of the Canaan Historical Society and descendants of the academy’s founders, at 1 p.m., Oct. 2 (transportation provided).
  • A staged reading of Ridgeway, a play by Charlie O’Leary, at 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 31, in the Bentley Theater at the Hopkins Center for the Arts. Pre-discussion begins at 4:30 p.m.; post-show discussion will feature O’Leary, director Kareem Fahmy, and cast members.

“As a house professor, I’m excited about the idea of house communities tackling important social, intellectual and ethical matters,” says Sutton. “We talk a lot about breaking down our intellectual silos and building bridges between faculty, students, and staff.”

He hopes SHARE can serve as a model for the kind of programming that does just that.

Hannah Silverstein