Five Years After Ferguson, One Week After Dayton, and our talking points still leave out something important
That was the start of this seven-day period.
On Monday, August 5th, acclaimed scholar and author Toni Morrison died.
On Tuesday, August 6th, the Root published an article responding to Mitch McConnell’s interns posing with a cutout of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez being molested and groped for a staged photograph.
On Wednesday, August 7th, Cyntoia Brown was released from a Tennessee prison.
On Wednesday, August 7th, the single largest ICE raid in history arrested 680 undocumented workers on the first day of school.
On Friday, August 9th, Whitney Houston would have celebrated her 58th birthday.
On Friday, August 9th, Michael Brown’s fifth death anniversary passed.
Before this week I had in mind a very different tone for this blog, but in writing now I took the time to re-listen to many of Toni Morrison’s recorded book talks.
I was reminded of the centrality of the perspectives of cultural workers in helping us to interpret our lives, and the immense contributions over five decades that she left us.
I accredit her approach to writing and commentating with elevating my attention to writing as a form of advocacy.
As I listened, I recounted an article that was published by TIME magazine on August 14th, 2014, five days after Michael Brown was murdered by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
“Over the last week and a half, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and the Ferguson, Missouri protests have spread over social media almost simultaneously, yet entirely discretely: twinned channels of wildfire blazing through quadrants of your attention that barely touch. The Ice Bucket videos took off around July 29; Michael Brown was shot on August 9.
The ALS challenge seeks to raise awareness and money for Lou Gehrig’s disease, a death sentence for the approximately 30,000 Americans who are at any given time afflicted. News of the Ferguson protests spreads in the interest of highlighting the brutal, unjust degree to which the state may still protect a white man who kills an unarmed black man.
In both instances, social media serves as an essential channel.
Furthermore, there appears to be an extraordinarily small overlap in terms of people who are seriously interested in both.”
When this article was first released, I added it to a required reading for the class of advocates I was in the process of training.
The week before the National Sexual Assault Conference had been gathered when news of Michael Brown’s death was reported, and I remember seeing under a microscope the silos and folly of issue specific approaches to advocacy work.
To think that we could meaningfully create a world free of sexual violence without confronting sexual violence as the second leading form of police brutality. The first being the killing of unarmed Black and brown bodies by officers like Darren Wilson.
To think that there wasn’t a hierarchy in where our attention and resources were being allocated, and to imagine that there was no bias within us that informed those divisions.
“I don’t believe in zero-sum games and I don’t write this to imply that neurodegenerative disease and human rights abuse have been put in direct conflict. Rather, I’m fascinated with what appears to be the opposite. The contemporaneity of these waves in social communication have revealed these ills — as well as the advocates for their solutions — to not just be non-conflicting but also emblematic of two separate paths of identifying and addressing unfairness, two roads that are inherently miles and miles apart.
Ferguson, unlike the Ice Bucket Challenge, is an opt-in situation, and the demographic division between those who have chosen to get involved in one or the other cause is startling.
The world is flooded with injustice in two rough forms: random and systematic. The less privileged experience both kinds as a matter of breathing, but the privileged experience mostly one. Conversely, those who have experienced significant structural gaps in their advantage understand that our country reserves its right to deliver justice.”
What strikes me about this framing now as it did five years ago is our misdirected attempts to understand all forms of suffering as random, and still, to believe that more random narratives of harm are somehow easier and faster to resolve.
Almost to the exclusion of self-inquiry, advocates content themselves to see their work in a vacuum.
There is a logic to our illogic, supported by who and what we maintain outside of our attention.
And therein lies our inattention, a failure to absorb the role of state violence in our experience of harm, and whether or not we are its target.
What Toni Morrison is a genius at is taking our sense of knowns and converting them into unknowns by selecting a fluid, unfamiliar setting as the backdrop of how characters approach self-knowledge and relationships.
In her description of writing God Help the Child she explains, “Structure is always where the theme is more than the characters, but I’m moving away from your question. They’re all brand new for me, brand new territory. Brand new ways of thinking. The current landscape was very slippery to me. I didn’t really understand or have a hook on 2007, so I waited, and then I began to realize that some of the earlier themes were still bubbling up and surfacing now, I just needed a new language, a new collection of people in order to express it.”
Central to her writing process is not casting herself as an omnipotent narrator, one who is objective or removed. She enlists both the characters and the readers to help contribute to a multidimensional perspective, and a pursuit of insight to be contended with.
My first semester of college overlapped with the 2008 presidential election, as well as the release of Morrison’s novel A Mercy, taking place in 17th Century America. I was taking a class focused on Contemporary American Fiction, and the professor explained that every work selected in his view was chosen because they were attempting something unique stylistically, something new.
At the time none of the works we read included introductions written by other authors, and our task throughout the class was to work with a small group to write one. My group was assigned to A Mercy.
She goes on to talk about the significant consequences of Bacon’s Rebellion as an example of a moment that embeds racism into America’s earliest identity.
“It was a group of men led by a landed gentry person, aristocrat, who gathered together white indentured servants, Black slaves, other landed gentry, about 400 or 500 of them, in order to overthrow the governor in Virginia. But at any rate, you have this interesting mix of slave, free, indentured and wealthy, who seemed to have the same purpose, and they were successful in the overthrow, but the consequence of that, of a group that was not defined by race, status or class attacking the powers that be was so horrible that they rewrite several laws and added some. For me the pertinent ones were any white could maim or kill anyone Black for any reason and not be prosecuted and that was the classic split because even if your interests were the same you would not join with them because you had this little perk which was whiteness, which is a construction particularly to divide poor people.”
When asked about Obama’s election as president in 2008 she shares, “This is curious this moment, partly because so much has been damaged, and partly because old divisions have surfaced again, and they’re almost just as violent. It’s not the majority of what is going on in this country, which is why I think this election, this movement, is brave in a sense, it’s like a reclamation of the promise of what America believed about itself.”
It’s powerful to hear her reflect on the state of the presidency eleven years ago, and to put in context that her final novel before her death, God Help the Child, written after A Mercy, is on the topic of childhood trauma.
In 2015 when she was giving a series of book reviews following the release of God Help the Child, she states repeatedly that evil bores her, and has for years. She announces that evil must wear a top hat, must be loud in order to get our attention, because it is nothing. Goodness, altruism, are what awaken her curiosity as an artist, are what compel her because she can’t fully describe what they are.
She names plainly, “evil’s role is to prevent us from doing our work.”
When I reflect on this week in light of her words, I remember the rationality of white supremacy and the violence it inspires and necessitates.
The terror is the point, practice and negligence the glue.
It is the rational calculation that needs our attention, carefully grooming us to speak narratives of justification and minimization.
I hear former therapists in my ear comparing me to a person gardening while my house is on fire, my alert system so used to crisis states that emergency couldn’t register as in need of immediate action.
I hear the pendulum swings between hyper vigilance and dissociation that are hallmarks of our crisis thinking.
I hear us failing to imagine the kind of violence that occurs privately before it enters our public imagination or conversation.
Rape lists and photographed molestation.
The invisibility of childhood trauma.
The connection between resisting normalization of mass terror making you more of a target.
The trajectory of abusing children collaterally when not directly.
The victim blaming language we rely on, whether an unarmed black teenager, or a migrant laborer being arrested, or a child being raped in a detention center.
Lest we forget the foundation of trauma, we miscalculate the blueprints shaping our responses.
We insist on the narratives most familiar to us, remaining insulated from insights that challenge our exclusion of other themes.
We erase the possibility of other contexts, other futures, other present responses that could drive us.
We conceal the violence we know is intentional because it has targeted us one way or another.
We hide that our sense of self is vulnerable to grooming, and shaken by escalating displays of state violence.
We migrate towards our hives, and we continue to garden ignorantly.
We don’t ask questions we don’t want the answers to, and as advocates, that betrays our function.
For like Morrison describes, there’s no room in our collective problem solving for omnipotent narrators. We can’t afford that kind of distance or delusion, and neither can those being targeted.
To incite terror.
To suppress solidarity.
To traumatize and trigger in mass scale.
To victimize repeatedly.
How do we burst our silos and break through to our new areas of thinking?
How do we understand violence as a system rather than an action?
How do we unpack the ideology that grounds our advocacy in partial understanding?
When asked if altruism prevents a sense of despair or cynicism Toni Morrison said no as she laughed, clarifying only, those things don’t give you anything.
Her concern was always, what does this contribute, and ours needs to be too.