No Matter What His Name: Writing about Ferguson
By Aaron Counts, WITS Writer-in-Residence
Sometimes in schools, it can feel like the weeks around Thanksgiving and Winter Break are an unproductive waste of time. Students and teachers alike are tempted to watch the clock and calendar and coast towards the upcoming time off. Since folks often have their minds elsewhere in a short school week, we don’t press too hard.
This year, during Thanksgiving week, the news offered a learning and teaching opportunity too powerful to let pass.
On November 24, in Ferguson, Missouri, a place that not too long ago seemed a world away from Garfield High School in the heart of Seattle’s Central District, a grand jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed teen Mike Brown.
We’ve all seen the news by now, the debates have raged over what did or didn’t happen, and uprisings and protests that began in Ferguson have spread to most major US cities, including some organized locally by the Black Student Union of Garfield High. But on the morning of November 25, just hours after the non-indictment was announced and the fires that burned in Ferguson weren’t even at their peak yet, I was supposed to teach poetry to a class of predominantly black teenagers. Many not too different from Mike Brown himself.
We talked news. About sadness and anger. About how rage boils over and feelings don’t always come out looking pretty. We guessed what we thought would happen next for Ferguson and for the rest of the country. We didn’t really have a goal, except to process what we were feeling.
When we felt ready to move on, I brought out Willie Perdomo’s poem “Forty One Bullets Off Broadway”– a poem written in response to the police shooting of Amadou Diallo. In case you don’t remember the story, Diallo was on the stoop of his New York apartment when he was approached by four plainclothes police officers about a robbery that had occurred in the neighborhood. Forty-one bullets later (nineteen of which hit him), Diallo was dead. The officers said they saw a gun. It was Diallo’s wallet.
I didn’t talk the history behind the poem, not even to tell them about Diallo. I just read it and let students respond. Which lines to you remember? What images do you see? The consensus favorite section were these lines, for the way they wrapped the anger and sadness into the push pin imagery:
like silver-colored push pins
holding up a bloody
back to Africa announcement
on the sheet rock
where your body is mapped out
Next, I turned to a poem by Danez Smith, “Not an Elegy for Mike Brown,” which was written after Brown’s murder but before the grand jury decision. It gave students space to frame the anger they were feeling and to contextualize burning and other property damage they could see happening in the uprisings—the “sweet smoke” Smith wrote about in his poem.
not an elegy for Mike Brown
I am sick of writing this poem
but bring the boy. his new name
his same old body. ordinary, black
dead thing. bring him & we will mourn
until we forget what we are mourning
& isn’t that what being black is about?
not the joy of it, but the feeling
you get when you are looking
at your child, turn your head,
then, poof, no more child.
that feeling. that’s black.
think: once, a white girl
was kidnapped & that’s the Trojan war.
later, up the block, Troy got shot
& that was Tuesday. are we not worthy
of a city of ash? of 1000 ships
launched because we are missed?
always, something deserves to be burned.
it’s never the right thing now a days.
I demand a war to bring the dead boy back
no matter what his name is this time.
I at least demand a song. a song will do just fine.
look at what the lord has made.
above Missouri, sweet smoke.
Smith’s line, “no matter what his name this time” provided us with the opportunity to place Brown’s death in the context of history. I asked those with cell phones to take them out. I started listing names names: Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Trayon Martin, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner. We took it back a little further, to Fred Hampton, to Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, to Emmitt Till.
Near the end of class, we still hadn’t gotten to much writing yet, so I asked them to write a journal entry, a freewrite responding to the discussion of the day or to a specific instance of violence that they had experienced or observed. I told them this piece writing would be private, and there was no need to turn it in. I haven’t read any of them, but somehow, I feel like I know what they all say.