Reflecting on history in the present: Ferguson in conversation with James Baldwin

I was struggling with an assignment that is due in the morning, so I did what I do best: I just started typing. What came forth is much of what I will present. I didn’t realize it could be my presentation until I was almost finished with the post. It is kinda long, and it needs some work and focus, but I’d love some feedback if anyone is inclined. ~M

Three days after my birthday, an 18-year-old unarmed black man was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Thanks to the advent of social media, people can share thoughts and emotions real-time and I, along with a smattering of my friends on Facebook, posted various stories about Michael Brown and his untimely death. I believe this story struck a chord with some in my generation, not because we were accustom to this sort of thing — though it is happening far more regularly, sadly — but because it sounded a lot like something we’d heard somewhere before. Something that was not supposed to happen in 2014. And we had heard it somewhere before. Our parents have horrific stories about black and brown men and women of yesteryear who were killed for doing  absolutely nothing wrong. I can’t even begin to list the names, but the chorus of names is getting longer, and far too many new names have been added to the roll in the past few years.

So what does this have to do with my assignment for the class History of Christian Preaching in the U.S.? Everything.

The assignment, which is due tomorrow (9/3) is to engage a theory of history and make a case for studying history. I chose Baldwin’s “Many Thousands Gone” essay from his work Notes of a Native Son. In reading this chapter Baldwin admonishes the reader to consider the past as a window to the future, among other things. Baldwin writes, “We cannot escape our origins, however hard you try, those origins which contain the key – could we but find it – to all that we later become.” He also begs the reader to be knowledgeable about the past so the present achievements/actions can be put into proper context. This essay is chocked full of soooooo much more, but my presentation is limited to five minutes, so I picked those two points. But these words, and others from this essay, are significant to me right now, in 2014, because of one particular response I received to an article I posted about Ferguson.

The poster in question was an associate of mine in middle school. To be clear, we were not ‘friends’ not even in the middle school sense. He was not particularly kind to me back then, but I did not really care at the time because I had my own small circle of friends. At any rate, he sent me a Facebook friend request a couple of months ago and I thought, ‘Why not?’ and accepted. I cannot say I ever went to his page or saw any of his posts during the period we were Facebook friends, so I do not know for sure about his political leanings and things of that nature. But I was able to glean his seemingly lack of understanding of what Baldwin wanted to communicate to the reader about honoring and being knowledgeable about the past.

The post in question was a CNN story about the private autopsy the Brown family had done on Michael. In summary, the story said Michael, who was unarmed, had been shot six times, including twice in the head area, among other things. Above the link to the article, I wrote:

“First question, how many bullets were left in the officer’s mag?? Second question, REALLY?!?!?
Shouts out to Ian Demsky, one of a small number of my non-black FB friends voicing their opinion on this issue, who posted this. #Ferguson #6shots #prayers”

A few hours after I posted the article and my comments/questions, I found this gem in the comments section:

“Sorry Michelle, I cannot be friends any longer if this is how the majority of your posts are. While this is a very unfortunate incident, you should not single out specific groups like that. This is at least the third time since I sent a f/r that you have posted similar things. You seem to have forgotten that we all are HUMAN. I know how and where I was raised, but you specifically need to seek out the reasons behind what you print online. I don’t walk around segregating myself with people because they cannot name ten Polish or Irish people; or bad things that have happened to them.”

I cannot EVEN begin to address the majority of this comment, but I will attempt to work with the last sentence, and put the idea in conversation with part of Baldwin’s “Many Thousands Gone” essay.

It never occurred to me that by posting about Michael that I was “segregating myself,” has he put it. I took the time to educate myself about past events and realized in that terrible past, there really was a window to the future. Early in the essay Baldwin proclaims, “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America — or, more precisely, it is the story of Americans. It is not a very pretty story; the story of a people is never very pretty.” And I believe the poster did not want to see that unpretty story of America in his Facebook timeline.

Tragically the story of the murder of Michael Brown is not new to America. For so long so many, regardless of skin color, have closed their eyes to that unpretty story that stories of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Renisha McBride — all unarmed black people killed by white people within the past 10 months — seem like anomalies.  But those who have an appreciation for the past, who understand the value of the past, can take these three murders and put them in context of past events. Otherwise, these three just come off looking unlucky.

To understand the history of black and brown people in America puts into context why some black and brown people are so upset/outraged/pissed off about Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Renisha McBride. To understand the origins of black and brown people in America puts into context puts into context the rage bubbling up inside some black and brown people in America.

So to that original poster, with whom I am no longer Facebook friends, no I have not forgotten we are all human. But you, sir, seem to have forgotten black and brown people were not always considered as such. Did you know, former Facebook friend, that there was a time when whites could do whatever they pleased to black and brown people? Did you know, there are still some whites who think they can do whatever they please to black and brown people? Do you understand how that realization shapes who I am today? No? That’s OK, because I do. I fully embrace what Baldwin means when he writes the likes of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom, though they are dead, they are dead they should not be forgotten.

“Yes there are now others who are more educated and socially accepted then they, but their experiences are just as important, if not more so, then those of the current generation. “They want only their proper place in the sun and the right to be left alone, like any other citizen of the Republic. We may all breathe more easily. Before, however, our joy at the demise of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom approaches the indecent, we had better ask whence they sprang, how they lived? Into what limbo have they vanished?”

Into what limbo have they vanished?


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