Steve Volk, August 16, 2015
At the beginning of yoga practice, we often sit for some time in virasana. With eyes closed, we begin to clear our minds – although mine usually just keeps trucking along. As we sit, we are often encouraged to think about the space in front of us, on our sides, and behind us. At my practice today, I began to think more about what occupies those spaces.
The semester will begin soon, just a few slim weeks since the anniversary of Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson. What is more, we’re coming off a summer which, for many of us and our students, was an appalling, angering, and disheartening period, filled as it was with so many Black bodies cut down by racist violence. As we tried to cope with Charleston, our thoughts were quickly forced to ask why Sandra Bland was pulled over for not signaling a lane change…and ended up dead a few days later; why Samuel DuBose was pulled over for not having a front tag…and was promptly killed by a white University of Cincinnati officer; why Christian Taylor was gunned down by a white police trainee in Arlington, TX. The Washington Post recently reported that 24 unarmed black men have been killed by the police so far this year, that’s 40% of all the unarmed deaths. And that’s likely an under count. Sam Sinyangwe of the Mapping Police Violence project reported that 179 African Americans have been killed by the police so far this year.
“Why do US police keep killing unarmed black men?” the BBC asked back in May as our students were leaving campus. Perhaps that question only remains alive for foreign journalists still trying to figure out why racial carnage in the United States is so endemic. Sinyangwe writes, “In the aftermath of Ferguson…there was this big question ‘Is this a pattern, is this an isolated incident?’ What [my data] shows is that Ferguson is everywhere. All over the country you’re seeing black people being killed by police.” He notes that “Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police in the United States than white people. More unarmed black people were killed by police than unarmed white people last year. And that’s taking into account the fact that black people are only 14% of the population here.” Perhaps, as I have come to realize, what was appalling about this past summer was not that it was unusual but rather that it was all too common. What has changed is that we’re hearing about this racial violence since body cameras and social media have become our nation’s paper boys, ready to drop this news on our doorsteps every hour.
This is not the time or the place to answer the BBC’s question, but it is a time to recognize that for many of our students, faculty, staff, and community members, the maddening crimes of this not-yet-concluded summer occupy all the spaces around them. These events, and what they imply for their own lives and the society we live in, are never far from their thoughts.
This may not be true for all of us, but whatever space Ferguson and Baltimore and Prairie View and Cleveland does occupy in your mind, as we prepare for classes and the return of our students, we would do well to recognize that for many in our community, our students above all, an education that doesn’t provide the tools to think critically about the BBC’s question as well as the set of skills needed to change the reality that calls forth such a question in the first place, is not an education.
What does this mean for how we teach our classes or engage our students? Beyond a doubt, it will mean different things for different people, and that’s as it should be, for there is no one way to approach this. But I have found a few important articles that give some good advice, and surely more are out there. I would recommend Dan Berrett’s recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “A Year of Racial Tumult Brings Potent Lessons – and Risks – to the Classroom,” as well as Colleen Murphy’s article, also in the Chronicle, “How a St. Louis HBCU, Deeply Touched by Ferguson, Handled a Difficult Year.” Do check out a Penn State website, “The Fire This Time: Understanding Ferguson. Learning from Faculty, Students, and Community Members, from Penn State and Beyond as they Engage the Events in Ferguson, MO.” For those on Twitter, I’d strongly recommend the #FergusonSyllabus and the follow-up #CharlestonSyllabus that was put together by Chad Williams at Brandeis. See, as well, the #Charlestonyyllabus produced by the African American Intellectual History Society. You can also find a list of New York Times articles on Charleston and its aftermath here.
However we think about this past summer, and year, we need to be aware of the fact that many in our community are hurting and we need to begin this year with a recognition of the pain that they suffer. We should understand that even if these events don’t take up all the space around us, and even if these are subjects what we don’t directly teach, they are events that have deeply impacted many in our community.
Here’s another timely resource. If you’ve ever hiked in the UK, you’ve likely encountered stinging nettle, and not in a friendly way. A slight brush against the plant produces a burning sting that goes on and on. As luck (or some other intention) would have it, the crushed stem of the jewelweed which grows right next to the stinging nettle, can be used to sooth your irritated skin. If the events of this summer were like a stinging nettle, than the publication of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (NY: Spiegel & Grau), a short memoir-polemic, is the nearby jewelweed. Coates’ is a massively important voice, his insights stunning, disturbing, unforgettable. This is a book that must be read. A few faculty, led by Pam Brooks, have been planning some discussion groups to explore Between the World and Me, and the A&S dean’s office has agreed to provide interested faculty with copies. We’ll get out more information on this soon.