When someone tells me about how difficult it is to talk about race in America, I'm always a little puzzled. Most days, it feels like that is all I do. I teach and talk about race everywhere, and I have for a long time. But the summer of 2014 and Michael Brown's killing in Ferguson, Missouri, changed everything for me.
The killing of Michael Brown made me sick for the reasons it made most people sick. As the news of his death flowed through my social-media accounts, I couldn't stop thinking about a dead body exposed to a community for hours on end. I thought about his grieving parents, who were forced to live their nightmare in public while defending their son. I was transfixed by the ethereal glow of tear gas pouring out into the night — the clouds of smoke and the squeals of protesters and bystanders searching for milk to cool the burning in their eyes while gasping for breath. No one should have to see or feel any of these things, but we all did.
When my husband told me that the Ferguson schools wouldn't be open for the first day of scheduled classes, my heart broke a little more. I've spent the majority of my life on a school schedule, so the first day of school is my sacred, secular holiday. Strangely, in times of tragedy, it's the little things that move you. It's the same way you can hold it together through a funeral, but the sight of deviled eggs at the reception afterward can send you into a primal wail. The thought of kids missing the first day of school sent me into action.
When my husband told me that the Ferguson schools wouldn't be open for the first day of scheduled classes, my heart broke a little more.
On Twitter, I asked my fellow educators — like me, most are dual citizens of Black Twitter and Professor Twitter — to consider devoting their first days of class to Brown, who had graduated from high school weeks before he was killed, and to all the kids in Ferguson. It was a small idea, a small contribution to something so deep, so rooted, so big, and so crushing that I didn't want to be alone. I used the hashtag #fergusonsyllabus.
The hashtag was a plea: "Please talk about Ferguson. Find something to say. Our students are confused, scared, and they are getting a constant stream of arguing talking heads. They need us to talk." What happened next is the kind of thing that I never imagined — the Ferguson Syllabus became a thing.
Colleagues decided to reinvent their classes for the semester, adding topics like the militarization of the police, the rise of social movements, and Missouri history to their syllabi at the last minute. Friends tweeted pictures of slides and flyers that said #fergusonsyllabus on them at schools around the country. Several high school teachers found my e-mail and asked if I could help them subvert orders from school districts that no one talk about Ferguson. We figured out how to use civics classes strategically.
We figured out how to use civics classes strategically.
Tech-phobic teachers signed up for Twitter, and they found themselves connected to allies. My Twitter followers in Halifax, Nova Scotia, related #fergusonsyllabus to Afro-Canadian history, and they donated socially conscious books to prison literacy programs. If you search for #fergusonsyllabus today, you will find a chronicle of how educators stepped up and reimagined what can happen at schools when history is happening all around us.
My students did so much of the teaching that year. A group in my African American Women's History class gave a presentation on their trip to Ferguson to stand in solidarity with residents; they had driven thirteen hours to get to Missouri from D.C.. We talked about their Facebook arguments with high school friends.
I didn't realize that after the semester ended, I would continue talking my students through the many other flashpoints that came after Ferguson. When Freddie Gray's neck was broken in Baltimore, and Sandra Bland was found dead in a jail cell in a Waller County, Texas, jail, and Korryn Gaines was gunned down in her home, my students reached out and asked to talk. One of them tweeted: "I really need @DrMChatelain's class. No one talks about anything together in real life." As my students count the number of women, children, and men killed, the police officers unindicted and acquitted, and the structures unreformed, I have noticed their reactions change. Injustice does not shock them like it used to; increasingly fewer of them have to be convinced that ours is a troubled age when it comes to race and inequality. But they are also unafraid to speak to their experiences, to speak out against what they see as wrong, and to speak to each other about race.
Here is the thing: silence does not protect us; in fact it suffocates us. I'm humbled by the folks who do the heavy lifting for justice — the protesters who lay their bodies down on pavement, the mothers who utter their dead children's names every day in hopes that our society might finally honor them, and the organizers who clear their eyes and lungs and bring more and more people closer to the movement. Among all this bravery, I offer what I know I can do: the work of teaching people how to really talk, of encouraging kids to notice differences, of helping teachers overcome their biases and fears of the children they need to care about, and of getting my colleagues to see that everything — yes, everything — is about race. My sense of commitment to helping get these conversations started has been reanimated and reimagined by the increased visibility of Black Lives Matter after that fateful summer.
Here is the thing: silence does not protect us; in fact it suffocates us.
When I travel and speak, people tell me stories; sometimes they hold back tears and choke down shame in the moments before the snacks and drinks are served. I think about them often. The black girl — one of the few at her private school — who told me that she feels weird because her white friend's parents forbade her from going to the prom with a black guy. The white high school teacher whose parents were staunch integrationists, leaving him to grow up without neighborhood friends. The immigrant parents who revealed that they had been harassed and brutalized by police but had never talked to their kids about it until one of my events. It's powerful. It's emotional. After the panels are convened and I have answered my last audience question, I go back to the hotel room and sit quietly. Sometimes, I cry. Sometimes, I exhale because I'm thankful that the audience warmed up or a heated moment came and went. Then, I get ready for the next conversation.
Marcia Chatelain is the author of South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration and the host of the podcast "Office Hours: A Podcast." Oh, and she's a professor, too, at Georgetown University.