How should academics respond to the death of Michael Brown and the non-indictment of his killer? If you teach critical race theory, criminology, modern American history, African-American studies, or any number of other subjects explicitly linked to Brown’s death, then I suspect you already have a plan. But what about the rest of us?
One of my beliefs about public engagement is that the process of becoming an academic, as both a scholar and a teacher, creates habits of mind that we can bring to bear on topics far outside our subjects. Academe teaches us to be narrow, to state “that’s not my field” when questioned. That caution, while understandable, has contributed to the sense of isolation of academe from public discourse. In moments like the reaction to Brown’s death, we need more engagement, not less, and each of us has something to offer.
The core skills of the humanities scholar lie in source criticism. We are good readers. We know how to draw meaning out of text, pull out unexamined assumptions, and link individual statements to broader cultural ideologies. We teach those skills. We model those skills. We apply them every time we watch a movie, read the newspaper, tweet comments on breaking stories, and otherwise move through life.
Now, in the wake of Ferguson, we have some work to do. On Twitter, academics have been organizing classroom topics under the hashtag #FergusonSyllabus. Here’s my suggestion to add to the list. The entire testimony of Darren Wilson is available online, along with the rest of the grand-jury evidence. Those are our primary sources. Whatever your disciplinary lens is, you’ll find something worth saying once you engage with those documents.
There are serious questions about the believability of the testimony, but that’s not my expertise. I’m interested in language and power. Wilson uses the following words in his testimony, describing his perceptions of Brown. He calls him a “demon,” repeatedly emphasizes his size, compares himself to a “5-year-old” against “Hulk Hogan.” At one point, he uses “it” in a way that arguably refers to Brown. He claims that a third punch “could be fatal.” Throughout, he endows Brown with terrifying size, speed, and strength, charging, even after he had been shot the first time, unstoppable, superhuman.
As a writer about disability, I am interested in how positive stereotypes dehumanize in ways analogous to negative ones. It turns out that there’s an academic study of just that phenomenon of how white discourse about black men “superhumanizes” then. The authors, Adam Waytz, Kelly Marie Hoffman, and Sophie Trawalter, present detailed evidence that whites routinely imbue blacks with superhuman qualities of strength, size, and endurance, suggesting that such language may seem positive but contributes to prejudice. They conclude:
Superhumanization of Blacks might also explain why people consider Black juveniles to be more “adult” than White juveniles when judging culpability (Rattan, Levine, Dweck, & Eberhardt, 2012); perhaps people attribute enhanced agency to Blacks thereby judging them more culpable than Whites for their actions (Gray et al., 2007). Relatedly, superhumanization of Blacks may contribute to Whites’ tolerance for police brutality against Blacks (Goff et al., 2008).
That sociological lens places Wilson’s testimony in a much broader context, but there are other ways to analyze the documents as well.
For Richard Godden, a postdoctoral teaching fellow at Tulane who works on monstrosity and disability in medieval literature, the testimony invokes long patterns of describing the monstrous. For example, Mr. Hyde, in the Victorian novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, is described with language that, for Godden, “bears a striking similarity to the language that Darren Wilson uses to describe Michael Brown.” Hyde is a “damned Juggernaut” who “trampled calmly” a small girl, then is attacked by an angry mob. Both the novella and the testimony, Godden says in an email exchange, “traffic in the language of the non-human, that is, the hulk, the demon. The ‘intense aggressive face’ that Wilson describes Brown as having sounds like the ‘inexpressible deformity’ that characters describe of Hyde.”
Godden is here applying his training as a literature scholar in a quite different way to make sense of the testimony, and I expect he will bring those insights to his students. I am going to try to do likewise.
Erasmus, directing us to hasten to the sources, wrote, “Sed in primis ad fontes ipsos properandum,” a mantra that could be drilled into the heads of every history student. In this age of the Internet, we are lucky to have sources proliferated before us, in real time. We are also burdened with short attention spans and the need to sift through hundreds or even thousands of pages quickly, because the general public won’t do it.
Believe it or not, this situation calls for a humanist, a social scientist, a scholar, a teacher.
Go to the sources. Then take your findings to your classroom, your colleagues, and even to the public. Take up the challenge of the #FergusonSyllabus.
David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University. His blog is How Did We Get Into This Mess? He writes on occasion for The Chronicle and Vitae. Follow him on Twitter @lollardfish.Return to Top