Ferguson: What's Respectability Got to Do With It?

Freedom Summer, Ferguson Summer

I always remind myself, and those desiring to survey the history of the United States, that America is still a very young nation.  Because this is so, in many ways she behaves childishly. Regardless, one imagines that 50 years of struggle on any matter would catapult her forward-- sending her through the growing pains of puberty and moving her on towards adulthood and a certain maturity. None of us, even those like me who were raised in the South and learned racism with reading, would believe that, as a nation, we would be standing still, or even moving backwards 50 years after a movement began. What movement? And why do I say 50 years when America is over 200 years old? Eerily and disconcertingly, this summer America celebrated the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.

For those unfamiliar, Freedom Summer was a project sponsored by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) where college students mostly from the north were recruited to travel to Mississippi and advance the struggle for civil rights there. SNCC was founded in 1960 and had been doing the work to further “free” African Americans living in the south (by securing voting rights for them, and further working to integrate their social and structural spaces) when Robert “Bob” Moses sought to bring in mostly White students to work alongside African Americans already in the struggle in Mississippi. Moses, who many regard as the brainchild behind the project, understood that with White children would come national media coverage, concern and empathy.

He understood what Bayard Rustin and Ella Baker also knew, which was that White survival and White safety was significantly (if not entirely) more important to this nation than Black survival and Black safety. And that what future generations like you and I would witness through photographs and early video recordings, needed to be presented in a manner that would prove African Americans deserving of what America’s forefathers regarded as inalienable human rights. 

This is the paradox and the tragedy concerning the plight of African Americans in the US. Since we somehow survived the holocaust of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade and crawled from the belly of the ships that carried us towards the atrocities of chattel slavery, we have been trying to prove that we are deserving—deserving of respect, deserving of equality, deserving of life itself—and we have yet to convince some of our countrymen of this basic fact.

Folk are traveling to Ferguson because there is something magical about oppressed people who live their lives in certain danger, standing firmly and collectively to say enough is enough.

It matters. It matters that what we know as social protest by African Americans, comes mostly through a certain lens—a lens of respectability. The social protests that represent the various stages of the American Civil Rights Movements were meticulously organized and carefully orchestrated. The fact that many participating as social activists at that time were not only college educated, but also trained in "freedom schools" that taught social, economic and political aspects of the movement, has to be acknowledged. Many of the images we see from the Civil Rights Movement show well dressed and articulate Blacks and Whites who were taught how to interact with vicious White supremacists, and even how to face ferocious brutality with the grace and power of non-violence. 

What I hope my students today will understand, and what we all should remember as our eyes are glued to the Ferguson live streams, is that what we are witnessing there is not scripted and curated. It is not a movement of polished, pressed and proper college students; instead it is a movement of Fannie Lou Hamers, of everyday people. In the words of Hamer, the people of Ferguson simply began to protest only to “support whatever is right, and to bring in justice where we've had so much injustice.”  Supporters and the press are traveling to Ferguson because there is something magnetic, something magical, about oppressed people, who live their lives in certain danger, standing firmly and collectively to say enough is enough.

The people of Ferguson, through their daily struggles to have their voices heard, are demonstrating what we say it means to be American. Yet there is an uncomfortable murmur from outsiders, including Black ones, about how they look, about what they are not—instead of what they are. Has the White gaze come to mean that only a certain pedigree of African Americans be public in their protest? I maintain that we have absolutely no right to ask that those on the ground in Ferguson look any particular way as they fight for their lives, and even ours. Wearing suits and speaking proper English has never proven to aid us in surviving a policeman’s or other civilian’s murderous rage.

It is time for us to put our respectability politics, and the master’s tools we’ve inherited from our oppressors, aside and fully support the people of Ferguson. While Freedom Summer, and other similarly crafted movements, were brilliant; what we are viewing in Ferguson is a raw, and beautiful revolution that has been a long time coming.

Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and solider of love. Follow her musings on Twitter @jonubian.