Teaching in the wake of the Ferguson non-indictment

Yesterday, it was announced that there would be no indictment of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown in Fersugon, MO on August 9, 2014. Demonstrations around the US took place last night, and continue as I type these words. Images of demonstrations and words of both anger and hope from thousands of people around the country fill my Twitter feed and invade my dreams.

Today, I teach my last class class before Thanksgiving, a national holiday that celebrates the founding, or initial colonization, of the United States. As Thanksgiving draws near, I always point students’ attention to the fact that our national mythology of Thanksgiving makes invisible the perspective of the people who are native to this continent, whose lands and rights and, in many cases, lives have been taken from them to enable the founding of a nation built on a dream of equality. I will do so again today. And today, I must also acknowledge yet another example of the ways that my beloved country fails to live up to its values.

The contrast between what I believe in as an American citizen and what I see happening in my country has rarely been so stark.

My identity as a citizen of the US is built on a belief that we share values equality and fairness and hope. I believe in those values; they have formed me and they guide me. And therefore, I cannot walk into my class full of smart, articulate, interested students, many of them people of color, without acknowledging the injustices so apparent in the news today.

Learning–creating meaningful knowledge–does not happen in a vacuum. The events around us shape our lives and our thoughts and our motivations. Being able to think about and discuss the difficult realities around us is the goal of a college education. Becoming confident that our perspective matters, and our voices are important, is a key outcome of a successful liberal arts education. Learning to think through important ideas and issues in the light of historical perspective and varying points of view, that is a purpose of college. I hope that students graduate from college more likely to initiate difficult conversations, more likely to broach topics of national or local or personal importance, more likely to risk the danger of expressing an unpopular opinion. And I hope that they are also more likely to listen to others’ viewpoints, to offer their attention and sympathetic imagination to their discussion partners. In short, I hope that all class members–students and myself–can learn to be both more courageous and more kind by practicing mindful discussion in the classroom.

I have been following the Twitter hashtag #Fergusonsyllabus, and it gives me both hope and guidance. So today, though it is “off the lesson plan,” I will initiate a discussion about the Ferguson decision. I want my students to know that they are safe in my classroom to express their thoughts and emotions, to ask questions about things they (and I, often) don’t understand. Our class is a space to think and discuss the topics that matter to us in the world because all learning is connected. I don’t know where this discussion will take us, but it is my job, I believe, to initiate the conversation.

Since I am a literature professor, and my best ideas come to me by reading, today I will offer my students this poem by the great African-American poet Langston Hughes. It encapsulates my anger and frustration with our delayed and inequal but oh-so-important American Dream. And it encapsulates my personal investment in the urgent importance of coming closer to realizing that dream. Here’s a short section of Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again.” The entire poem is available here:

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

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