An Elegy for Michael Brown

A month after protesting in Ferguson, this Black, Harvard-educated literature professor has been teaching at one of the nation's most elite boarding schools. Can she make a difference?

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I’m an educator. I teach English at one of the top independent boarding schools in the world. I’m also a Black woman. With a Masters in English, which qualifies me to teach it, and a Ph.D. in African-American Studies from Harvard University, which, among other things, scares the shit out of everyone.

Yet, here I am, in rural New England, teaching the literature of my choice and with an interdisciplinary bent (read: African-American) and how to write the personal essay to a mostly White, upper-class population.

And this is a good thing.

When applying to grad schools I wrote in my personal statement that my presence in a classroom is a revolutionary act. I fill a space of authority that is still very much White, male and very, very privileged. When I visited my current school’s campus and saw the alumnae list full of governors, Supreme Court justices and presidents I felt emboldened. What ran through my head would become a recurrent mantra since my time here, “I’m here for the White boys.”

In August, a month, before starting my job I’d visited Ferguson. I snuck into Governor Jay Nixon’s first press conference to address the recent riots following the killing of Michael Brown. I watched him speak. It was one of the saddest and most enraging scenes I’ve ever witnessed. I won’t even address the things he said or, rather, didn’t say. By now, we’re aware of his urging for townsfolk to “go to sleep” while the National Guard took control. His body language at the press conference was just as offensive. There was a moment where he seemed to hide behind one of the Black officials. He never made eye contact with any actual human present.

I remember thinking, This man has never dealt with a Black person in his life.

I’m sure he’s existed among Black people: The people who clicked his ticket on the train, put his items into the grocery bag, panhandlers on the street as he as his driver waited for the light to change.

I remember thinking, He has never had anyone like me in his life in a position of authority, in a position higher than his.

So while it was absolutely jarring to go from this—from scenes of razed buildings, burned-down gas stations, and from the memorial site where a boy’s dead body lay bleeding on the street under the blue sky for four-and-a-half hours to a nearly 300-year-old, billion-dollar-endowed institution and sit in meetings where colleagues happily discussed their child’s first bike ride or another’s trip down South to discover his forefather’s Civil War roots, I felt a strong resolve that I was in the right place. That I was there for the White boys.

I’m here for the Black girls and boys, too, so that if, for nothing else, they can see a Black woman exerting authority in a manner and in a space not traditionally filled by us. This particular institution is faculty led. The administration is also the faculty, decisions are not passed down—they are shared. In other words, I am not just an English teacher, I’m among the keepers of the gates.

And they need to see me here for the White boys.

Sure, Whites see us putting on Band-Aids to scraped knees, pushing baby carriages, herding the very, very small children of others, doling out their peas and carrots and Happy Meals. In fact, around here, usually other Whites tend to fill these roles. That doesn’t mean the kids see Whites in more diverse roles—they do but it’s not registered that way. Rather, Black people become completely disappeared in their surroundings and their imaginations.  The students go home and see Blacks in our usual lesser-than spaces or they simply don’t see us at all. Maybe they see us on screens dancing, running, singing, and every once in a while, one of us as a head of State.

This position I’m in is fraught with anxiety—of constantly wondering, of fretting—that every single statement I make, movement I make, facial expression I let loose—is just right. Such a nervous state is nothing new. At 32, most minorities in mixed spaces have become professionals at this chameleon effect.

What is not as typical is when this—the pricelessness of mastering how to be Black in White spaces, spaces that can and do deny my existence—is duly recognized by Whites.

My advisee’s father, a White man, told me it was important to him that I was his son’s advisor because he wanted his son to have exposure to people’s different perspectives and backgrounds before he’s in college, specifically before he was 19 years old. In my 32 years here I was faced with a man who was not asking me to teach his son about blackness, no. Rather, he was sharing with me his desire that his son be exposed and guided by that which he could not offer him in their hometown: In short, that his son see difference differently. By age 19, a young adult’s thinking becomes more abstract and less tied to reality. This man wants his privileged White son to have me in his imaginative and mental maps as part of his developing basis for his future decision-making.

This was a father expressing a deep need for his son to grow into a White man who might just rise above his race and to be a global citizen; to have empathy, to question more than answer, and to have a Black woman be his guide. It was as uplifting a moment for me as it was humbling.

That was in October. It is now a week since Darren Wilson was not indicted by a grand jury for shooting and killing Michael Brown. A week since he testified that he felt as if Brown was an “it,” “a demon” that would not die. A colleague tells me she and her husband are taking their 1-year-old son apple-picking. An old high-school friend posts pictures of a warm, wholesome Thanksgiving dinner. I want to scream, Fuck your apples! Fuck your turkey! Fuck your holidays! Fuck your smiles! Fuck you! Fuck. Your. Children. Since the grand jury’s announcement I’ve been simultaneously addicted to and repulsed by social media. Professionally, I have no business on Facebook when there are stacks of papers to grade. Yet, that’s also what feeds my ire: How can I do anything, how can anyone do anything remotely normal like motherfucking apple-picking?

How can I teach at this world-renowned private institution to these privileged White kids? What does that even do?

As a follow-up to our meeting I’d emailed the parents thanking them for such a rewarding exchange. The mother wrote me back: “The lack of diversity of religion, race, and opinion in rural Vermont has been a real concern for both of us. I am pleased to hear that your advisory group has discussed the situation in Ferguson (which echoes situations across the country and across the world). [Our son] has the opportunity to hear from fellow students in advisory who have a variety of backgrounds both international and domestic, Black and White. I do not know what other diversity is present in your advisory group, but I hope that his experience on campus causes him to think frequently about other people and expands his worldview beyond that of Vermont, America, White, and male. We are a very privileged group. It’s one thing to know it intellectually. We have to hear other people’s stories to begin to internalize what that really means and how we can effect real and significant change in this world. Thank you for helping my children to grow as human beings by mentoring them, by teaching them, by facilitating their experiences, by sharing part of who you are with them.”

I keep returning to this note, to help remind me that what I’m doing is worth it, worth the pain and frustration.

This essay has been particularly painful and frustrating to write. And I cannot articulate exactly why. I can say I am deeply anxious that, in telling this, White people will feel good about themselves. You’ll read that encouraging note from a White family and think, See, that’s how I feel, too. Yes, we are good people, doing good things. My fear is that when White people feel good about themselves you think that the problem is solved. It is not.

Remember, it’s only once you start feeling uncomfortable that we’re getting anywhere. Remember, Darren Wilson had a defense fund. Remember that what you will not see are the many White folks who will shake his hand.

So I share that heartfelt message with you and then I want to remind you that it also doesn’t mean shit.


Linda Chavers is this week’s guest columnist for “What’s Going On.”


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