Citizen: Listening to Ferguson
I was on a plane over the Midwest when Darren Wilson was not charged for killing Mike Brown. Before the pilot said turn off your phones I asked J. to tell me what happened, so when we landed there was a message from him and from K., who said she pulled over to cry. I didn’t cry. First though I imagined setting fires, so second I imagined the faces of the people I love. They keep me from setting fires. Still it was a relief, feeling anger as strongly as guilt and shame.
All next day I walked alone around the city where I grew up. I bought a fish sandwich and ate it looking at pearl-gray water while the diner played the Supremes. I dyed gold streaks into my hair so that when I looked in the mirror my face would be different. I didn’t really talk to anyone. How could I ever be a mother. How could I not. Why. Then I shut my mouth and I listened.
Because the point is not how I reacted to the non-indictment but that I cannot talk about what I read this month without talking about Mike Brown. Nothing else I read felt important. Even as I knew, after ten years working in prisons and public high schools, what those texts would say once I was back on the ground. We, you, I cannot allow ourselves to expect news like this just as we cannot allow ourselves to be unprepared for it. Hearing it puts us in hyperspace. Where is my body. Where is yours.
On the internet that night my twenty-year-old friend said he was stopped by the police on the way home from a protest. They pushed his body up flush to a car. That next day another friend sent me a picture of the two of them, safe out in the street holding up signs. Then I cried.
“I call disaster that which does not have the ultimate for a limit,” writes Maurice Blanchot, translated by Ann Smock. “It bears the ultimate away in the disaster.” The ultimate, from ultimare, “to come to an end.” The disaster is and also, it bears away the end. This puts us in zombie times, or maybe, slightly more hopefully, some new galaxy or mossy mushroomy forest floor. Are we walking. Are our bodies here. Is mine. Is yours.
Blanchot and Smock continue: “There is the answer to the question, but then too, the answer that makes the question possible; and also the one that redoubles the question, makes it last and does not appease it, but on the contrary confers upon it a new brilliance.” How long do we wait. “The responsibility with which I am charged is not mine,” they write, “and because of it I am no longer myself.” Does my body matter.
Column as placeholder, or what I would like you to read: Carvell Wallace on parenting the night of November 24th. Kiese Laymon on his Vassar College Faculty ID. Robin D.G. Kelley on why we won’t wait. Aida Manduley’s Ferguson Masterpost. Deray McKesson’s Twitter feed. Martin Luther King’s “The Other America.” The National Bar Association’s Response to the Grand Jury’s Decision Not to Indict Police Office Darren Wilson in the Shooting Death of Michael Brown. Meara Sharma and Lauren Berlant’s interviews with Claudia Rankine. Cathy Park Hong on delusions of whitness in the avant-garde. Eric Thayer’s photos of the charred Flood Christian Church. Mariame Kaba on sending white people to jail. The hashtags #chi2ferguson and #blackpoetsspeakout. Kayla Phillips on what hardcore, Ferguson, and the "angry black woman" trope have in common.
Two summers ago I took a class with the poet Kazim Ali, and the first page of my notebook says what’s under the ground and in the earth really defines a city. “The horizontal city exists in space,” he said, “and the vertical city exists in time.” There are many ways to observe a city, to live in it or to leave it, including: architecture (buildings, streets, traffic patterns), resources (what and where are they, and how are they distributed), geography (again, including proximity), geology, economics, the cultural and literary imagination, our history, other histories, and finally my history. Am I returning to it.
“The question for me,” writes Claudia Rankine in her brilliant Citizen: An American Lyric (which, besides Fred Moten’s Feel Trio was the only poetry I read this month, and re-read and re-read and again, again), “The question for me was: What do I gain by dwelling in the struggling public spaces that wish to obliterate the black male body?” Rankine talks about the “impossibility of actually putting your body in the place of devastation if it doesn’t belong to you.”
Also, “if its intent is to destroy someone else, but comes out of the same history that made/makes you, does it also belong to you?” Her “made/makes” is also true, and scary. What are we making. What is being made. “If you can’t or won’t do the math, then the space must hold your reactions too. I struggle with wanting to reroute the content I am living,” she writes, “and often its supremacist frame is pushing back, pushing back hard.” I can’t push back without a body.
Mairead Case (@maireadcase) is a writer in Colorado, where she is also a English and Creative Writing PhD student at the University of Denver and, through Hoist Point Writing, a poetry teacher at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. Her book See You in the Morning comes out from featherproof in September 2015.