Michael Brown’s Big River
Looking at the pictures of the outing you would never know that the musical had had much of an impact on us: we staged a photo of ourselves in James’ red convertible, all of us in sunglasses, waving, and put it on face book. But it wasn’t about the ride in the convertible; it was about the play—“Big River”—and the theater, Maples Repertory in Macon, Missouri, whose artistic director, Todd Davison, was a friend. Our group, the Lambda Alliance, tried once every summer to go see a play together to show our support for Todd and to be visible as a group of rural GLBTQ adults. Mostly I think community theatre benefits those who participate in it: the actors, musicians, and crew. I tend to never feel challenged by it in a way I want art to challenge me. But I need more theatre in my life, so I go. Todd knows his community—aging, white, rural—and he has gotten their support and that of the business community solidly behind Maples Rep. They like standard community theatre fare: Forever Plaid, The Best Little Whorehouse, and the Church Ladies plays. Agitprop is not why his audience goes to the theatre. It’s why I go.
I don’t like art that seems satisfied to evoke the sentimental, the saccharine. As Leslie Jamison wrote in “In Defense of Saccharine,” “sentimentality offers feeling without the price of complication.” (119) I don’t deny that community theatre has the power to dramatize connections and failures of connection between people; it’s just that it’s mostly done comically or sentimentally. Todd’s company in its make-up shows the hard work of connection he’s trying to do: his core group of equity actors, directors, and designers is recruited from regional auditions, and some Macon community members appear in the shows as well. So there is a mix of levels of experience in the company. But what attracted me to “Big River” was the group of black actors essential to the production. The show is a musical re-telling of Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. If Todd had succeeded in bringing actors of color to the stage in Macon, I wanted to see the results.
The night of the show I couldn’t put my finger on what was making me uneasy, however. I had this feeling the black actors were playing it “too big”. And I’m not even sure what I meant by that. Their predicament—slavery—was the most interesting part of the dramatic structure of the play. Maybe I had the feeling they were playing blackness in a way white audiences would find acceptable, and I resisted. Maybe a black director wouldn’t have chosen this play. Nevertheless the play was about what W.E.B. DuBois would name in The Souls of Black Folk, “our spiritual strivings.” Huck and Jim had to work together to free themselves: Huck from “civilization,” the box the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson want him to live in. Jim wants not only to free himself from enslavement, but to be reunited with the family slavery had torn from him. There’s no doubt that the audience realizes the stakes are higher for Jim; even when freed by Huck and Tom late in the play, Jim’s not really free.
In liner notes accompanying the original cast album, producer Rocco Landesman wrote that the “emotional center of the story” occurs near the end of Act 1 when Huck and Jim find a raft and, as a posse pursues Jim, they hop aboard and head south toward the mouth of the Ohio River where Jim hopes to head east and north. The song they sing, “Muddy
Water,” is full of energy and possibility and a connection to the ecosystem. The two see themselves as climbing on the back of the Mississippi River to ride it to a place where Jim can “hide some place to find myself again.” But the two men’s initial exuberance passes when after a rain a heavy fog sets in and the two pass a barge of captured runaway slaves being returned to their owners. The song the slaves sing is considerably different. “The Crossing” is a spiritual in which a lone woman’s voice (accompanied by the other slaves humming in 3 or 4-part harmony) sings of crossing to “the other side”, in this case from life to death; there’s no optimism about the interim. In the fog Huck and Jim pass the mouth of the Ohio River.
Reading the credits of the black actors in the program, I began to wonder if they were trying to communicate the despair of two different historical moments simultaneously: right before the Civil War and now when they keep getting told they live in a “post-racial” society but can’t get out of the black actor box: Driving Miss Daisy and the occasional meaty August Wilson play. Maybe trying to communicate the despair of those two moments simultaneously had “Jim” and the other “slaves” playing it so big, “it” almost exploded. But it didn’t. So where does it explode these days? Where are we most aware of the “heavy load” of “a dream deferred”?
We always have a choice, Leslie Jamison would say, when we realize the art before us is saccharine: we can binge on the feel-good sweetness like the white people in the first row at Maples Rep who jumped up and gave Jim a standing ovation for his portrayal of a slave. But sometimes there’s a moment, Jamison writes, when the sentimentality gets “punctured,” letting us emerge from the thrall of the sweetness—a white guy and a black guy on the lam together—to think pragmatically about lies like “post-racial society” and profoundly about humans’ need to be liberated from the structures we build and maintain. The value of that moment “lies in the process of [our] emerging from its thrall.” (130)
On August 9, 2014 the tomatoes were ripe at Earthdance Farm. Since 1883 tomatoes had ripened on this farm every August. The world around it had changed. The farm found itself part of a small Missouri city called Ferguson, an exurb of St. Louis. There were 14 acres left of the original Mueller farm and Earthdance called itself the oldest organic west of the Mississippi and prided itself on an internship program for youths in Ferguson. Interns lived at home and worked part-time at the farm, the better to connect their dailiness in an exurb like Ferguson with the dailiness at the farm. Sometimes interns brought their families to the farm, families who often didn’t know if any of their family members had ever been farmers and who might feel the merits of this kind of internship were dubious. As August 9 was a Saturday, interns would have picked produce the day before, perhaps, and that Saturday gone to Ferguson Farmers’ Market to sell it and to network with the community.
At Canfield Green, a Ferguson apartment complex, that same afternoon a police officer told Michael Brown and his companion Dorian Johnson to “get the fuck on the sidewalk” as they walked down the middle of Canfield Drive. An altercation between Brown who was unarmed and the officer, Darren Wilson, ensued. Within 90 seconds, Officer Wilson had shot Brown at least 7 times, the last, fatal bullet entering the top of Brown’s head. Having already shot Brown 6 times, the officer claimed Brown was about to charge him at the point he fired the last bullet which 3 subsequent autopsies called the “fatal bullet”. Michael Brown’s body lay in the street 4 hours that afternoon, an afternoon warm enough to ripen tomatoes in Ferguson. His neighbors were outraged.
And it was the outrage I watched on tv. I was in thrall to it. I watched MSNBC for hours as Chris Hayes and his team documented the calls for justice for his family, the actions of police and protestors, and the degree to which police forces like those of Ferguson and St. Louis County had become militarized. Seven days into the protest Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and enforced a curfew. At times the governor seemed to have no language in which to speak about race and civil unrest. I began to wonder if he should be in charge of the emergency machine if he couldn’t explain to the rest of us what he was doing. I hadn’t realized how little time he must give to thinking about the discourse of race and class in the state of Missouri. The unrest continued and President Obama sent the Attorney General Eric Holder to Ferguson. Twelve days after Brown’s death the National Guard was withdrawn by the Governor. And day by day the connections were being articulated between Michael Brown’s death and the deaths of other African-American males in encounters with police. Two weeks and 3 autopsies after his death, Michael Brown was buried amidst a lack of trust between community and police articulated so loud and long that no one could deny hearing it, though many, I found, were not willing to believe it. Finally I didn’t think the actors in “Big River” had overplayed it at all. The desperation was palpable all around me.
Meanwhile the school year had begun and the long aria of protest continued while a grand jury deliberated whether or not to bring charges against Officer Wilson. Michael Brown would never go to the community college he had enrolled in. [And here we are, in this piece, at the place I arguably know best: school.] The Dean of Students sent a letter reminding us that we had many students arriving from St. Louis who, due to the unrest there, might be in need of some kind of support from us—us being everyone from the residence hall staff, to the classroom teachers, to the deans. She really didn’t get more specific than that. We are a highly selective public liberal arts university in a largely white rural area. We struggle to get students of color to come and live and study with us. But, of course, given what was going on in St Louis, students of any ethnic background could be arriving, wondering whether or not any of us knew what people in the St Louis area were going through. And, of course, everyone wasn’t going through the same thing. I kept waiting for the open mic in the Student Union to happen. Nothing. I assume we were afraid of what we might hear.
When I went in to teach one of my favorite classes, Nonfiction Workshop, I met Calvin Post, an African-American student from St Louis who was so soft-spoken that I often had to ask him to repeat himself in the early weeks of the class. He had the same body type as Michael Brown: big in a way that was probably more flab than muscle, and I wondered if I couldn’t “hear” him because I couldn’t see him, Calvin. I was seeing something/someone else. There are weird gifts involved in reading lots of student writing for a living: I learned, for instance, that Calvin is a very good bowler. Fortunately Calvin started coming to office hours. As we talked and as I learned by reading his educational history, I realized he was always puzzled by my prompts for writing which were in the form of Calls for Manuscripts from actual literary magazines. He was smart and could generate plenty of text, which are useful skills in college writing, but he seemed the product of an education in which he was given one after another set of directions and told to follow the directions. He didn’t understand writing as a series of decisions we make based on what we’ve read, what moves we’ve learned to make, what information or experience we want to share purposefully based on the audience we imagine and/or know; writing is combining those sets of possibilities into something new. To do these things is to have authority as a writer.
That’s a tall order, I realize, a maturity that comes hard even to those who have been taught how to read like a writer: how to read for the moves the writer is making and how to commit to learning to make those moves yourself. Often I didn’t feel Calvin had understood the assigned reading. Other times I thought he was just stuck in a first-draft mentality that many busy students face: it came out of his head in a certain order and was long enough. He worried he wasn’t getting better. And I worried too. He would seem to understand that he was never going to get out of the C category grade-wise if he didn’t learn to edit and polish sentence by sentence and that when he learned that, he would enter the B category where he would learn to attend to the relationships between the generalizations, the specifics, and the structural features of the essay and that, of course, in practice he had to do it all at once, even if he couldn’t learn it all at once. But then I’d get another paper that seemed shapeless and in need of lots of copy-editing.
He always thanked me for meeting with him. And I was grateful he’d come to the office for my feedback because I didn’t always think he was getting useful feedback from his peers. Lots of Truman students have gone to good schools where the ability to think critically is an educational goal even if it’s difficult to think/speak/write freely in a rule-bound environment like high school. Calvin had written during the semester about how he’d been bullied and removed from one school by his parents because they had felt it was too strict. So perhaps he’d been bullied not just by other students, but by the teachers and administrators and the structures that they all colluded in creating and maintaining as well. When I got his final portfolio, I found a paper in which he had taken an extra-literary form—the move-rating system—and used it to rate representations of his own experiences. What I responded to was his ability to take that form—the ratings system—and see that he could look at his own experiences, and the representations of those experiences and think of the representations as more appropriate for some audiences than others. And he seemed to have copy-edited or gotten help from a friend with copy-editing. Progress. He registered for a Screenwriting class the next term and I did not see him again until his Senior Seminar presentation. The soft-spoken hesitancy was still there, the grabbing for a familiar structure that in its choice limited the parameters of his analysis. But of course he was alive and thinking, and I hoped was moving toward more complex structures of thinking and writing. Michael Brown was not.
That fall I became unable to ignore white people’s/the dominant culture’s intransigence. I hadn’t been unaware of it, but I could no longer push it to the periphery and pretend I didn’t see. Things came to a head Nov 24, 2014, a few nights before Thanksgiving, after the grand jury decided not to indict Officer Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown. Protests took place in Ferguson and Dellwood and some local businesses had been burned. The whole metro St Louis area was uneasy. A friend and fellow teacher in the St Louis area had invited me to a party the night after Thanksgiving called Alt-Thanksgiving. No turkey. I decided to go even though I live 3 hours away because I was hoping I’d meet teachers who worked with Ferguson students and would be able to come back home better understanding what it had been like to teach in the St Louis area these past 4 months.
But when I got to the party no one really seemed to want to talk about Ferguson. And after dinner people sat down to play a game called Cards Against Humanity. The game is billed as “a party game for horrible people… as despicable and awkward as you and your friends.” I saw the deck of black cards with questions on and feared having to come up with witty self-revelatory answers to these questions in front of people I didn’t know. And I was pretty sure I was the only lesbian or gay person there. What I didn’t realize was that the purpose was not to generate self-revelatory answers and get to know people. No You are provided with “answers” on 7 white cards, answers that seem like racist, sexist, heteronormative, nationalist, selfish non-sequiturs. You choose one non-sequitur as your “answer.” The questioner reads them all aloud and gives someone a point for their “answer.” The first one to accumulate 5 points wins.
Black card question: “During sex I sometimes think about _____.”
White card answer: “Toni Morrison’s vagina.”
This struck me as worse than tasteless after the protests of the preceding week and after what these people had gone through since Michael Brown’s shooting August 9. I was thinking about how I had believed Toni Morrison had gotten out of the black-box-of-accomplishments-white-people-will-mock-even-while-their-city-falls-apart-around-them. I was a fool, dead wrong and embarrassed at my naiveté. I excused myself to sit on the front porch with a blanket. But pretty soon I was off in the bushes just outside the range of the motion light throwing up. I wrote it off as eating peanuts (I’m allergic) I had thought were cashews in a beautiful tofu dish on a softly lit buffet and drinking too much wine, but I also want to claim it as a visceral expression of my shame at not realizing how stuck and racist our dominant culture is. How hobbled we are by these divisions in the context of which we live and teach. I threw up some more. Peanuts, intransigent racists, red wine. I went to bed.
In the morning I got up and had coffee with my friend and we talked about how to start recruiting more students of color to become teachers. But she pointed out that teachers of color are leaving the profession in greater numbers than they are arriving, that they don’t find it satisfying to work in the schools as they are. Thus, we can’t just add more teachers to a system bleeding teachers; we are going to have to change one of the workplaces that are the bedrock of our culture. That would seem to demand a long view of things which the dominant culture usually uses as an excuse to do nothing except make sure the police have what they need. And as we saw in Ferguson, the police had more than what they need. I think what students need now is to be heard and, in the case of writing students, to be read and to experience being heard and read as momentous because someone was moved and responded. We have to move this workplace from a protector of the status quo to a responsive institution whose continuance is not predicated upon ignoring inequality which impedes the performances that are evidence of self-realization.
In early December 2014 The New Yorker cover depicted the St Louis Gateway Arch in two pieces—one white, one black—over a downtown whose focal point was the courthouse from which the Dred Scott decision had been issued in 1857. The courthouse and the downtown, too, were ½ black, ½ white. But the Mississippi River in the foreground was a beautiful shade of gray.
Davey, Monica. “Fatal Encounter in Ferguson Took Less Than 90 Seconds, Police Communications Reveal.” The New York Times. November 13, 2014. Accessed Dec 27, 2014
Harris, Andrew; Petterssen, Edvard. November 25, 2014. “Ferguson Officer Compared Brown to Hulk Hogan.” Bloomberg. Archived from the original November 27, 2014. Accessed Dec 28, 2014.
Jamison, Leslie. “In Defense of Saccharine.” The Empathy Exams. Minneapolis: Gray Wolf Press, 2014.
Miller, Roger. Music and lyrics to “Big River”. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Corporation, 1986.
Big River Original Broadway Cast Recording.
Sharp, Diamond. “The Month after Michael Brown’s Death: A Ferguson Timeline.” The Root. http://www.theroot.com/articles/culture/2014/09/the_death_of_michael_brown_a_timeline.html Accessed 12-29-14.