Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Ramble: Ferguson, President Obama, Diverse Books, Time and Space

Earlier in this week of awful news out of Ferguson, in my home state of Missouri, my friend and colleague Rebecca Sherman commented on Twitter:

I do too. That speech remains the best speech I've ever heard a politician give in my lifetime, both honest and inspiring, both personal and national in its implications. It acknowledged the complexities of Mr. Obama's candidacy, of his relationship with the Reverend Wright, and indeed of the whole history of race in America after slavery. Rereading it now, I was astonished to see these lines:
We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.  
Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students. Legalized discrimination — where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments — meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.  
A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families — a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods — parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement — all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.  
. . . What’s remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them. But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it — those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations — those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways.
This anticipates nearly everything in Ta-Nehisi Coates's brilliant article "The Case for Reparations" in The Atlantic earlier this summer -- except, of course, Mr. Coates's conclusion, which is that Congress should investigate the idea of reparations for African-Americans. Rather, Mr. Obama describes this legacy of pain as an opportunity for all Americans to come together, first to listen to and acknowledge each other's sufferings across racial lines, and then to work to address that suffering:  the lost jobs, the lack of health care, the poverty and poor education that afflicts the 99% (to draw on another political metaphor). The speech received near-universal acclaim, and while politics, being politics, quickly reverted to the usual game of sound bites and wins and losses, it did create a quiet moment in the hullaballoo of that 2008 campaign, a moment when most people heard what Mr. Obama said, and glimpsed that opportunity, even if we did not take it . . .

Like Rebecca, I wish very much that Mr. Obama had the time and courage and clarity and political daring to make another speech like this in the wake of events in Ferguson -- to be our storyteller-in-chief of sorts, to help one part of America listen to and understand the anger and fear of another, and to point the way toward dialogue among and a shared mission for all our citizens. I am sorry that he doesn't make this a priority, because I think perhaps he could do some good. But in his absence, we have to do that work.

I am moderating a panel this Tuesday for Scholastic's Teacher Week -- a conversation with Varian Johnson (The Great Greene Heist), Lisa Yee (Millicent Min, Girl Genius), Sonia Manzano (The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano), and Sharon Robinson (Under the Same Sun) about diversity in children's literature and the need for all children to see themselves in books. There are a lot of dimensions to the diversity conversation, but the moral use of such books (and the moral necessity of publishing them) is fairly straightforward:  More than any other media, a book allows a creator to control and tell their own story, to reveal the world they see in all its joys and sorrows, complexities and nuances, and to have that story be heard. For readers, books provide that opportunity to step into someone else's story and hear it -- to be affirmed by the story if some part of it speaks to your own experiences, emotionally or racially or religiously or physically, to know that you are not the first to go through this; to learn from it, both intellectually and emotionally, if it does not match your experience; to be challenged by and grow from it all around. (I wrote more about this, and the moral and sociological necessity for diverse books, in the opening of this talk.)

And I can't help thinking:  How different might Ferguson have been if all the policemen had read Walter Dean Myers's Monster? Or Fallen Angels or Sunrise Over Fallujah, for something closer to their own quasi-military experience? Or Ta-Nehisi Coates's article, or The Beautiful Struggle? Or even listened to the "This American Life" stories on Harper High School -- about a very different place than suburban St. Louis, certainly, but unforgettable in showing some of the pressures on young black men? Or best of all, if the policemen had heard the stories of the people of Ferguson as individuals? If they had shared their own?

Perhaps nothing would be different. These can be seen as highly naive and facile questions, given the money and history and societal factors that went into the making of this as-yet-ongoing tragedy, and I acknowledge my highly privileged role in asking them. But I also believe that books, stories, do what not-yet-President Obama did with his "More Perfect Union" speech:  They reveal the complexities, allow us to see things as both individual and universal, make other people real, open up space for dialogue -- if we'll take the time to listen and talk and learn. I wish we could find more of that time and space.


  1. This has given me a lot to think about this morning. The Coates article is brilliant. I also followed the link to your talk, and then jumped to the Nancy Larrick essay. Thank you for writing and speaking about these issues and for recommending excellent additional reading.

  2. Cheryl,
    As a former teacher in a public school, I can tell you that all the programs and money in the world can be there, but if the parents do not value education the kids won't either. I spent hours calling parents whose kids would not do homework or listen in class to be told things like "don't bother me when I am work. When they are at school, they are your problem." And then I had students whose parents were very recent immigrants, could not speak English- they were not affluent, had not had opportunites for education back in their home country and they were thrilled to have their kids in school. They insisted their children behave and do their work. Those kids succeeded with English as a second language. It is not an issue of money spent or not spent or past histories. It is an issue of whether the parent (and yes, there was often only one) cares to make their child accountable for the great opportunity of free public education, free school books, free bus rides and breakfast and lunch that they are given through the taxing of other people.

  3. I actually did Forensics in high school, and this was the first speech I ever performed! I love its truth, its rawness, and its audacity. He wasn't even in office yet when he gave this speech; he had everything to lose by speaking his mind--but he did anyway. And I so respect that. One of the most awe-inspiring and unexpectedly hopeful speeches I've ever heard and had the pleasure of performing. And if I'm being honest, I miss the pre-presidential Obama. The one who dared to be truthful in the wake of everyone who was putting on their political facades. I hope with all my heart he doesn't let Ferguson go unsung.