Frank Leon Roberts (GAL ’04, TSOA ’04, TSOA/GSAS ’20)
On the Front Lines for Black Lives
By Dulcy Israel
Portrait courtesy of Frank Leon Roberts
Celebrated for his work around the study of the Black Lives Matter movement, Frank Leon Roberts is an assistant professor at The New School. He holds a BA in English and African American studies from the Gallatin School of Individualized Study and two degrees in performance studies—an MA from the Tisch School of the Arts and a PhD from Tisch and the Graduate School of Arts and Science.
How did your childhood inform your work today? Growing up in the 1980s as the son of a single mother who struggled with crack cocaine addiction and a young father who worked as a crack cocaine dealer—later imprisoned at Sing Sing—radically shaped my political imagination. My parents taught me how structural issues such as educational access, geography, and the intersections of race, class, and gender could impact life choices and outcomes. Where you grew up played a big role as well, right? I was born in Hollis, Queens, in a neighborhood synonymous with the birth of hip-hop. My neighbors were Russell Simmons and Joseph “Run” Simmons—they literally formed Run-DMC next door to me. The rich legacy of rap music in Hollis is what introduced me to the idea of the arts as a vehicle for social change. Why are you called the Black Lives Matter professor? In 2015, I began teaching an interdisciplinary seminar at Gallatin entitled Black Lives Matter: Race, Resistance, and Populist Protest. It was the first course offered on a college campus that sought to teach the history of the movement as it was actually unfolding. [We] brought in organizers weekly from the BLM community to train students in antiracist organizing techniques and included weekly videos and lectures posted to a website I created called Blacklivesmattersyllabus.com. That semester, I was arrested for civil disobedience for shutting down the NYC West Side Highway in response to the acquittal of the [police] officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner. I began being referred to as the Black Lives Matter professor. Is the Black Lives Matter Syllabus a reading list? It is better to think about it as a reference to a movement or a state of consciousness. The purpose of the phrase is to remind folks that in order to be a good activist you need to first be a good student—committed to reading, writing, and engaging the life of the mind. Throughout Black history, the most effective organizers have almost always been people deeply committed to intellectual engagement. What is the art piece of your activism? The terms art and performance are beautifully misleading. The kind of theater that my work engages is not the kind that happens on stage. In the wake of COVID-19, the ongoing mass public protests against police violence, and the threat of a second civil war—if there is one thing that this moment in American history reveals to us, it is [that] we are all actors living in a grand historical drama.