tension

'Hands Up! Don't Shoot!'

ON AUG. 9, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot to death by Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson. A collective groan was let out across social networks—people began the lament “Not again.”

Just four days prior, John Crawford III, a 21-year-old black man, had been gunned down by police in a Walmart in suburban Dayton, Ohio, without warning, while shopping for a BB gun. A few weeks earlier, Eric Garner, an African-American man, was choked to death by a New York City police officer.

For young black men, each incident is a reminder of how easily our lives can be taken away by police aggression. For the people in Ferguson, however, over-policing is all too familiar. In a city where 67 percent of the residents are black, there are only three black police officers on a force of 53.

A 2013 report from the Missouri attorney general’s office revealed just how bad relations are between officers and black citizens. Out of the 5,384 traffic stops made last year by the Ferguson Police Department, 86 percent of them targeted black drivers. Black drivers were searched and arrested at nearly twice the rate of white drivers, although contraband was found at a rate 13 percent less than that of white drivers.

The shooting death of Michael Brown was the tipping point. The gathering anger and frustration bubbling on the streets of Ferguson from an abusive and militarized police force finally erupted.

What followed was astonishing. A generation often criticized for its supposed apathy toward social issues organized and protested while being tear-gassed and shot at with rubber bullets. Peaceful demonstrators took to the streets each night to demand the arrest of Darren Wilson and were met with an aggressive response by law enforcement. Police used dogs, tear gas, and stun grenades to disperse the crowds exercising their right to assemble—events eerily similar to ones decades ago during the civil rights movement.

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Love, Race, and History

U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey

WHEN U.S. POET Laureate Natasha Trethewey visited my day job at historically black Kentucky State University, she cleared up a couple of things about the honors and duties of her position. First she noted that, unlike her British counterpart, she does not receive a free cask of wine as part of her payment. But that’s okay, she says, because, unlike laureates of old, she also does not have to compose made-to-order poems to the glory of The State. The State should also be relieved at that, because Trethewey’s poetry, while obsessed with history and written in a plain-spoken and accessible style, also habitually exposes profoundly unsettling truths about us and our past, especially regarding race.

From her first book, Domestic Work, focused on the lives of working-class African Americans in the South, to her most recent, Thrall, which deals with images of interracial relationships from the 17th century to the present, Trethewey has focused her keen verbal gifts on the most sensitive nerve in American life. Trethewey comes by these obsessions naturally. She is the daughter of a white man, Eric Trethewey, himself a poet of some renown, and a black woman, Gwendolyn Turnbough, who was murdered when Trethewey was in college. Trethewey was born and grew up as a mixed-race child on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the late 1960s and ’70s.

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Jazz Fusion — Like It Or Not

Musical notes, graph / Shutterstock.com
Musical notes, graph / Shutterstock.com

Jazz is an embodiment of creative tension; it is essentially a medium that is expressed through creativity and change. It’s also a wonderful metaphor for what my life often feels like. There is beauty that often emerges from the tensions of life’s unpredictable rhythms. I have never resonated so deeply with this idea than in the last five years since I became a parent. 

When I was pregnant with my son Javier, I read stacks and stacks of books on parenting: nurturing your child, building your child’s faith, raising a baby in the city, saving for college, and organic cooking — you name it, I read it. I conducted informal focus groups with all of my parent friends. I was prepared (I think you already know where this is going…). I was so proud of myself, I gave birth to this beautiful boy and I even graduated with (informal) honors from the nursing class at the hospital. So there I am, confidently pushing my newborn in his new stroller out of the Lenox Hill hospital, when I see the nurse smiling at me.  I naturally think she is just as smitten with this beautiful baby boy of mine. But then she stops me and with a tone superiority tells me that my baby is backwards in the stroller: “you need to turn him around.”  And it was at that moment that I realized I had no idea of what I was doing and that this creative process of raising a child was going to also going to involve a lot of not knowing, unlearning, and a surrendering of what I could not control or anticipate. 

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