Race and Expression in the wake of Ferguson

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Symposium focuses on media coverage, use

Beneath the vaulted wood ceilings of Pere Marquette Gallery, the Walter J. Ong, S. J., Center for Language, Culture and Media Studies, held a symposium on Race and Expression on Wednesday, April 8.  The event incorporated faculty and students from the departments of American Studies, English, Political Science and African American Studies.  It concluded with a keynote lecture by Professor Houston Baker, a specialist in literary theory and criticism from Vanderbilt University.

The Center derives its name from Walter Ong, a Jesuit professor who taught at SLU and who is best know for his 1982 work “Orality and Literacy.” The Center “fosters inquiry into works of the human intellect and imagination, and brings together members of the academic community for interdisciplinary analyses and discoveries,” according to its website.

“[Ong] is one of the most eminent scholars in the humanities in the history of SLU,” said Dr. Sara J. van den Berg, the Center’s director. “He believed that language structures consciousness … He’s of most interest to people who are studying electrical culture.”

This belief in the relationship between language and consciousness, combined with the context of Ferguson and its aftershocks, framed the symposium. The day’s panels addressed how the black community used the media and how the media represented it. “It was a topic we’d already been talking about on campus … After Pestello’s call for conversations on race around campus, it made sense,” said van den Berg.

During the morning sessions (and one in the afternoon), graduate students in both American Studies and English, as well as African American Studies majors, composed panels that dealt with topics more explicitly tied to Ferguson: “Locating Ferguson: Race, Region and Rights,” “Civil Rights and the Media: From Nathan Young to Ferguson” and “The Black Freedom Movement from the 1960s to Now.”

The symposium’s subject matter took on more broad and abstract qualities for the final afternoon session, entitled “Contemporary African American Literature, Film, and Issues of Violence”, with a panel composed entirely of faculty. Each panelist expounded upon his or her own interpretations of the topic.

Dr. Joya Unaizee (English) opened by stating that technology not only stores, but also styles what we know.  As such, she identified three narrative patterns in representations of people of color: those produced by scholars; those produced by survivors of violence; and those produced by witnesses in contact with those survivors. While her discussion focused on South African film, she concluded by distinguishing the principal narratives that arose out of Ferguson: “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” “Support Darren Wilson,” and “Black Lives Matter.”

Dr. Chryl Laird (Political Science) argued that “access to digital media has allowed for a collapsing and combining of oral culture, as well as the written word into a nuanced form of expression and offers marginalized communities an opportunity to be heard.” She drew attention to the development of “Black Twitter,” which highlights black perspective, emotions and experience through such hashtag trends as #BlackLivesMatter and #IfTheyGunnedMeDown.

Political science professor Stephen Casmier evoked “the other side of this dangerous, highly mediated space” with a personal anecdote on “two irreconcilable narratives of the same event held by two friends.” He pinpointed a racial divide that is equal parts dissonance and media narrative. “Many Americans simply don’t and can’t process the daily lives of African Americans.” Out of this, he outlined, grew dichotomies of predator versus victim and the narrative of the “super cop.” “American Hollywood narrative overflows with what a friend calls ‘revenge porn’,” he said, “[which is] a much less satisfying experience than its cinematic counterpart.”

Dr. Harold Bush (English) sought to end the panel on a hopeful note. Ferguson, he said, is “a word that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.” Citing the public’s compulsion to have to sides to every story, Bush wondered if people could think about their historical or cultural memories of things in theological terms. His reason for this interrogation was having witnessed people “coming together because they felt that they wanted a redemptive response, instead of a violent one.” After showing some of the most recognizable images of Ferguson, and pondering the role of the media in relaying them, he asserted, “I don’t think we’d be here today if we didn’t think there was some hope for change.”

Reparation featured prominently in the audience Q&A portion following the panel. Casmier made reference to what he called “the discourse of remorse” of Pope Francis. “He moves forward through his remorse. … There needs to be a discourse of remorse.”

In a similar vein, Unaizee added: “Forgiveness cannot even begin without that acknowledgement [of injustice].”

Dr. Houston Baker anchored his keynote lecture around last year’s publication of the 25th-anniversary edition of The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. He made an initial reference to Ferguson before plunging into the dynamics of black literary criticism: “This is not Ferguson as discreet entity…this is one of those mega-signifying structures.” He spoke at length of his scholastic experience in the Black Revolution of the 1960s, “an epiphany in our lives,” and within the academic circles of the Yale School of literary criticism. He commended the student panelists who had preceded him over the course of the day; “The generative impulse is in the work that is now being produced.”

He made earnest reference to what he called “racial wisdom passed along on street corners and in churches…spoken, inscribed and performed in a genealogy of preservation.” In the tradition of the symposium’s title, he explored the significance of vernacular speech in African American expression.

He concluded by lauding Gates’ work as “a tribute paid to the longevity of the African diaspora.”