As a white woman with a vivid childhood memory of the uprisings that followed Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, how could I make sense of the Ferguson grand jury verdict— in and out of class?
At the time of the announcement, our classes had dispersed for the Thanksgiving holiday. I had already assigned the term’s final writing project and was deeply ensconced in catching up with grading students’ essays. When we reconvened for the last week of classes after the holiday, all attention would be focused on completing the coursework. Yet the work of the course, as an introduction to academic writing, would remain deeply intertwined with all of our lives.
In the midst of grading essays, I found myself riveted to events in the aftermath of the grand jury verdict, flipping back and forth between our course management system and social media to stay current with developments. I hoped to find a quote that might give voice to my own complicated thoughts, and found one at last on the James Baldwin Facebook page:
“For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”
– James Baldwin (from Nothing Personal)
With Baldwin’s words, I found inspiration for returning to the classroom after the holiday. I considered how we might offer each other writing spaces for process and resilience, places to experience in writing the sense that “the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing.” In the last week of classes, we would need to reestablish our weekly routine, however briefly, after the holiday disruption.
Nonetheless, so much depends on context. Our differences can lead us to view the same events through drastically dissimilar lenses, as I recounted in a 2013 blog post on Trayvon Martin. The students in my courses come from a cross-section of academic, regional, racial, ethnic, and political backgrounds. They may well have discussed Ferguson over holiday dinner tables or perhaps participated in demonstrations. I remembered the need to become mindful of the role that civil unrest plays in the lives of our students, no matter their background or their community of origin.
Even as civil unrest may appear outside the norm, we need to interrogate the meaning of normal for our students and for our communities. For some students, normal may signify the appearance of civic order, and absence of discord on race and class. For others, order and tacit agreement may represent business as usual—as are the stultifying conditions that silence the truths of lived experience, and that close down opportunities for realizing hopes and dreams.
Regardless of how and why teachers attend to the events of Ferguson, we can approach our students’ responses with nonjudgmental awareness. Indeed, in modeling nonjudgmental awareness ourselves, we can invite students to support each other in the same fashion. In doing so, we can work toward the ideal of a supportive community in which all students may grow and flourish as writers. As Baldwin would have it, we hold the responsibility to bear witness to the glimmer of possibility that comes in changing light.