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Life and Literature: Trying to ‘See Difference Differently,’ Writers to Read after the Ferguson Decision

by Cameron Steele

I had Ferguson, Missouri on my mind when I first pitched the idea for the “Life and Literature” column series in early September. 18-year-old African American resident Michael Brown was newly, tragically dead, and the public did not yet know the name of the policeman who shot him. The national media just had begun to turn their cameras to the outrage and the protests on the streets of Ferguson.

I was horrified by what had transpired there – and by the maliciousness I encountered in the social media conversations of friends, family members, and acquaintances. These are people who are, like me, white people of privilege. To see them ignore the racial injustice of Michael Brown’s killing in the days and weeks after it happened was infuriating.  

To see them now pat themselves on the backs after a grand jury declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson for shooting Brown is unconscionable.  It’s more than horrifying. It’s a word that I can’t use here, a word I’d rather scream than write anyway. It’s many of those words. Which is maybe why I couldn’t figure out how to write about Ferguson for last week’s blog, and probably one of many reasons I’m struggling to do it here. But it’s important to me, as a white woman, to acknowledge that people of color have to work harder for the opportunities I take for granted, even – as Ferguson yet again showed – the ones I have the privilege to consider basic rights like equal access to justice and police protection.

That is not OK.

We started the Life and Literature column to connect our readers and contributors to literature that moves us and gives us insight into the world around us.  We began with a discussion of Ferguson two months after Brown’s death, of creative writers and their political acts, how poetry and fiction can help us listen to the stories of others and, as one black Harvard professor put it in this incredibly moving, post-Ferguson reflection: “see difference differently.”   

The poets and writers who are carving out small but luminous spaces of protest against the grand jury’s “no true bill” in Michael Brown’s case have sustained and increasingly loud voices. Many of them are writing from within minority communities, and the words they are speaking are words to yell, words to hear, words that burn. They are words to read right now:

  1. The #BlackPoetsSpeakOut project: Organized by the Cave Canem foundation, which supports African American poetry, this “project of witness” compiles the poems of black writers from across the country in the wake of Michael Brown’s fatal shooting.
  2. The Parable of the Unjust Judge: An important post-Ferguson piece from The Toast’s Ezekiel Kweku on respectability politics and their limitations.
  3. After the Ferguson Decision, A Poem that Gives Name to the Hurt: NPR’s All Things Considered considers a powerful poem by Audre Lorde
  4. Not An Elegy for Mike Brown”: Slam poet Danez Smith’s moving response to Brown’s death and the civil unrest it has sparked. Smith, a black-queer poet, performed “Not an Elegy” at the 2013 World Individual Poetry Slam.
  5. I Will Only Bleed Here: NYC writer Bijan Stephen on how he felt after the Ferguson ruling: “I’d spent the day trying to accept what I already knew—that there’d be no indictment, that justice didn’t and never has lived here. I don’t know that she ever will. I’d blind her if I could.

What have you been reading in the wake of the Ferguson grand jury decision? Talk to us on twitter at @TheSchooner and let us know!