Ferguson as History

by Eric Washington.
Heavily armed police in riot gear approach an African-American man with his hands raised.

Police in Ferguson, MO. (Photo by Jeff Roberson/AP.)

Last summer as I prepared my scheduled readings for my African-American history course, the background noise on my living room television reverberated with the tense voices of journalists and people all unnerved in the St. Louis County city of Ferguson. On August 9, 2014, Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed, eighteen-year-old African-American man, Michael Brown. In the aftermath of this broad-daylight killing, citizens of Ferguson began to fill the street where the killing occurred. People noticed the body of Michael Brown resting lifelessly on the hot pavement under a scorching afternoon Missouri sun. Outrage became the tune of this day, and for days, weeks, and months to come. Grassroots protests by citizens of Ferguson and surrounding communities in St. Louis County attracted the attention of national and international media giving voice to African-American frustrations over what this national community perceives as continual injustice when it comes to young men dying at the hands of law enforcement and white people in general.

As the protests ensued, I felt that this was an incident worthy of discussion at the end of the course. It would be a great epilogue to an already planned discussion on the Trayvon Martin killing of 2012. I decided to do something different, however. Since the Michael Brown killing came on the heels of the July 2014 Eric Garner killing by police officers in Staten Island, New York and the August 5, 2014 killing of John Crawford by a police officer at a Beavercreek, Ohio Wal-Mart, I believed that discussion of the issue of police officers killing unarmed African-American men deserved immediate attention. Rather than teach the course in a strict chronological order, I made the decision to begin with the hot button issue of race in America and the killing of unarmed African-American men by the police and others (in the case of George Zimmerman in Florida).

When it was time to discuss Ferguson, I began the class with a general discussion on race. I asked my students to write five terms that describe their understanding of race. Many students employed biological or physiognomical terms to describe race, which surprised me. I was fairly sure that upper-level undergraduates had come to an understanding that race has nothing to do with biology or physiology. This is why teaching is such a rewarding vocation. A few described race as social construct. I then followed up by giving them the evolution of how scholars have defined, and re-defined, race. I did conclude that the consensus among scholars is that race is a socially constructed term, but a term that is still very real and powerful. I even broached the topic of if race is a biblical concept, which engendered the same variety of responses with students connecting physiognomy, specifically skin color, with race. To round out that discussion, I mentioned that the biblical words in the Hebrew and Greek translated “race” in our various English translations of the Bible refer to ethnicities, or nations of people having nothing to do with skin color inherently. From this discussion about race, I knew that I would have to be clear about showing how race, and especially blackness, came to be conceptualized during the period of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and beyond.

The readings I selected for us to discuss all had to do with race. For the sake of space, I’ll only focus on one piece we discussed that I also had students respond to in written form a week later. Greg Howard’s piece, “American is Not for Black People“, was especially provocative. Responding to Michael Brown’s killing just three days after, Howard, a writer and editor for Deadspin.com argued very concisely and simply that “The United States of America is not for black people.” To support his case, Howard wrote of other recent slayings of unarmed African-American men such as Eric Garner and John Crawford in addition to Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant. He reminded his readers with this stark and painful statement: “Michael Brown is not special.” At that time, he was the latest of unarmed African-American men cut down in the country they called home. I led the class in a discussion about Howard’s basic argument and if it is reasonable. All agreed that Howard’s argument and support made sense. They could see how the militarization of police forces have shifted the relationship between police officers and citizens from protectors and the protected to destroyers and targets. This was a raw piece to swallow, but students brought lots of empathy and sensitivity to their reading and our discussion.

Large crowd with some people holding signs that spells out "Black Lives Matter"

Demonstrators held lighted signs spelling out “Black Lives Matter” during a protest in Boston.

After discussing race in contemporary America beginning with Ferguson and then backtracking to Trayvon Martin, Hurricane Katrina, and then Barack Obama, we began with the African context of African-American history and commenced the long march down the chronological pike before ending the course with a discussion on Affirmative Action and Hip-Hop Music. Did my students see the connection between the negative effects of race on African Americans in the here-and-now and the history of African-American oppression? I think they did. It became apparent when we discussed an excerpt from Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi. Moody reflected on the Emmett Till lynching of 1955, and wrote: “Before Emmett Till’s murder, I had known the fear of hunger, hell, and the Devil. But now there was a new fear known to me–the fear of being killed just because I was black.” As I read that passage aloud in class, I knew we had come full-circle. Here were the thoughts of a fourteen-year-old African-American girl in Mississippi in 1955 giving expression to the same fear of young African Americans today. I connected this with Ferguson. My students “got it.” Ferguson was just the latest reminder that at times America has been against its African-American citizens.

Eric Michael Washington is assistant professor of history and director of African and African Diaspora Studies at Calvin College. He is primarily interested in studying the African American church from its development in the late 18th century through the 19th century, and individual Christians, primarily Calvinists. He also has a growing academic interest in the growing “Black and Reformed” movement in North America.

About historicalhorizons

The blog of the Calvin College History Department
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