27 November 2014

History Is What Is Happening: The Death of Mike Brown and Empathy in ‘post-racial America’

Justin Sullivan/ Getty Images

At work but not working on this Thanksgiving Day 2014, listening to Coltrane’s  ‘Alabama’ and Burroughs’s ‘Thanksgiving Prayer,’ not caffeinated enough, a white immigrant been here some fifteen years. I have been going to bed thinking about ‘post-racial America’ waking up thinking about Ferguson and the death of Mike Brown and with him, Empathy. Spending the day thinking and talking about short-term memory loss, genetically inherited trauma and the over-simplification of ‘discussion’ in this attention span shot-instant response-virtually uncommunicative age. 

It is Thanksgiving and so I am thankful for Ralph Ellison and Malcolm X, not necessarily because I’m trying to be a ‘white ally’ but for an education. It was history and literature that got me through school and the likes of Malcolm X and Ralph Ellison who taught me to really read. I can’t say why the ‘black experience in America’ got me, a white Welsh teenager living in the Persian Gulf, so deep into book-reading, but it did.

In the British education system, the General Certificate of Secondary Education, back when I was fifteen at least, I found the teaching of history to be profound. It was less the subject matter (although that was endlessly fascinating as I just stated) but the way in which you were taught to get to grips with that history. It was less about the dates surrounding the World Wars but Causes and Consequences to those wars. It was less about civil rights than exercising Empathy for all sectors of society that were involved in that struggle. Teach a kid a specific history and they will understand that specific history, teach a kid to teach his or herself how to teach themselves history beyond memorizing dates, places and names and they will forever have the tools to understand where the world has been and where it might be going. 

The high point of my education was a paper I wrote on Empathy. I had to take, perhaps half a dozen representations of American people and how they may have reacted during the Civil Rights era. I cannot remember the specifics but it was something like: a young black girl in the south, a white judge in the North, a white farmer in Alabama, a black man who had fought in World War Two and now lived in Chicago. My job, as a fifteen year old white Welsh expatriate attending a British School in Bahrain, was to attempt to get in each person's head, in an effort to understand why they may have thought the way they did about race relations and how they may have responded during that heated era of struggle. Anyway, my teacher read my paper and said, ‘That’s pretty much perfect. I can’t think of how you could have made that any better. 100%. Well done.’ I was floored. I was always a very mediocre student, barely getting by, barely giving a shit, day dreaming about getting out of school to ride my skateboard. Therefore, I did not take my momentary academic success lightly and yes, I was mighty proud of myself. I now knew how to go about teaching myself and I felt ready for the next step.

That next step was moving to an American Department of Defense school. Of course I was excited about signing up for English but really could not wait to take the next steps in History. I wanted to dive further into Primary and Secondary evidence, cause, consequence, looking into various subjective and objective interpretations from various angles and to tease out my own conclusions and theories. Instead, I was given a one book. One fucking book to cover most of America’s complicated history. One book with one opinion. One side of the story. And it was a very dry book, with tedious prose, lots of dates to remember. I was terrible at remembering dates but at the very least I was sure this didn’t matter. What mattered was how I understood the history, right? And then the tests came. Test after test, week after week mostly about dates and so called ‘facts.’ After spending the last two years of my British education writing analytical papers where I was allowed to posit my own arguments and theories based on the wide selection of primary and secondary evidence I was allowed to research, I felt betrayed. Again, I was disillusioned with school and resumed cruising through at just about a satisfactory level. 

Fuck You, Ms. Houser.

So when I think about reactions to Mike Brown’s death and the subsequent aftermath. When I think about the knee jerk, emotional responses, I think about the how little race relations have really progressed. When I hear terms such as ‘post racial’ and a complete lack of any attempt to really understand where people are coming from, it is a depressing as all hell and I cannot but help blame this country’s lack of understanding of itself. Its failure to teach its people how to investigate its history, their own history.  The result is convenient memory loss, shallow reasoning facilitated by instant (dis)communication, social media and bigoted memes that do nothing to promote meaningful debate and reconciliation.

I don’t expect everyone to condemn Officer Darren Wilson as murderer and I don’t expect everyone to be sympathetic to rioters burning locally owned neighborhood shops but (and I said this about the London riots, which people also lazily dismissed as mindless or opportunistic materialist ‘thuggism’) just try and look at the context that all this is happening in and try, please try, to get in the heads of everyone involved.

The only hope I have in all of this, is that all that hate and perceptions that people have previously held about each other, have boiled to the surface and it is now a bit clearer how people really feel. And even though a lot of this is narrow-minded bigotry and mutual hate and distrust, perhaps it will be cathartic and perhaps people will now be forced to at least start to contextualize current events. Where else can it go?