It is ironic. I am currently reading THE OTHER WES MOORE for school. In a nutshell, the book is about two African American men named Wes Moore who lived blocks from each other. One went on to have a successful career and family life, and the other went on to a life of crime that ultimately ended him up in prison. The moral of the story is you can have two guys with the same name from the same place, yet something simple can cause their lives to diverge and go a different direction.
It is ironic that I am reading this book because today I am thinking about a young man named Michael Brown whose life has ended as a result of a police officer shooting him multiple times and in my family, we have a Michael Brown too. He is my stepson, but I never fear for his life the way I do for my son. Not because I love my son more, but because unlike my stepson, my son has brown skin. My stepson is white, and not once in his life have I worried about him getting shot by the convenience store clerk because he was sagging his pants or looking “angry.” Not once have I worried that a routine traffic stop could result in my white stepson being falsely arrested, or worse, shot dead with little or no regard. Not once have I said to my white son, “Smile. Don’t be mean-mugging. Let people know you aren’t a threat.” Not once.
The media has decided to focus on the looting and violence that took place after the murder of Michael Brown. Two issues that need to be kept separate. The looters need to be dealt with according to the letter of the law. But the murder of Michael Brown needs to be dealt with separate and apart from this looting and violence, because when we try and connect the two, the message is clear. “See, those folks are nothing but criminals and thugs. THEY don’t deserve justice.” That is the message that is being sent and that is the message that is being heard and regurgitated by so many. If the looters burn down the entire city, that doesn’t change the fact that a mother and father lost their child.
My students and I will be talking about this issue. My students are mainly white, but they need to know that this issue is not a black/brown issue. This issue is OUR issue and it will take ALL of us to reach a solution. This issue of police brutality and disregard for certain segments of the population has to be addressed as an issue that is important for ALL citizens of this country.
I read the article, "MFA or POC" in the New Yorker by Junot Díaz a few months ago when it was first printed, and I felt a genuine sadness for him that his MFA experience was so unfulfilling. I am a graduate of Spalding University's Low Residency MFA program. My experience there was one of support, empathy, respect and encouragement. Now, did I always feel like my work was 100% understood. Of course not. However, I never felt like any of my teacher/mentors or fellow classmates tried to marginalize or invalidate my work because maybe they were not writing about black folks from the rural south. Yes, there were times when I was the only black person in the room, but truly, I never felt like that fact inhibited the discussion.
Sometimes there were more questions in workshop than solutions. The workshop leaders/classmates really sank their teeth into the work being discussed. They challenged their own interpretations. Sometimes people relied on those in the room who are closest to the culture being written about. Often discussions turned to literature that was similar to the work being discussed, but never did I ever feel like my work was not being taken seriously.
A lot of my stories are slave narratives written in dialect. Again, no one ever said, "why are you writing in that difficult, hard to understand language?" And to be honest, much to my surprise, fellow classmates and mentor/teachers treated dialect like it was a language, something I never experienced in graduate school before. If anything, people encouraged me to continue to write in dialect, and as a result, I was able to develop my skills in writing this beautiful language in such a way that I can maintain the reverence I feel for it but it also present it in a readable and understandable fashion to my audience of readers.
I credit our leaders at Spalding, Sena Jeter Naslund, Kathleen Driskell, Karen Mann and Katy Yocom, for making it clear that the workshop is designed to encourage the writer whose work was being discussed and not tear down the writer or leave that person feeling abused and unvalidated. Now that does not mean we didn't have some intense discussions and disagreements at times, but at the end of the day, we realized our competition, as so eloquently stated by Sena, "was not in the room but in the library and bookstores." I never felt the uber competitiveness at Spalding that I've heard other MFA grads from other schools talk about. Even now, the vast majority of my community of supporters and friends are my Spalding classmates/mentors/teachers/leaders.
So, I said all of that to say, research closely the MFA programs that are out there. Don't just take for granted what their materials say. And don't pick a school just because your favorite writer teaches there. Go visit them. Ask if you can sit in on a workshop or lecture. Talk to graduates/current students/teachers. Most times, they will tell you the truth. And of course, I would love for you to check out Spalding. My life changed radically when I walked into the MFA office at Spalding, not really sure if being a writer was still a viable option for me. Karen Mann made me believe that day that not only was my dream possible, but she was going to do everything in her power to support it. And I found this to be true for everyone else I encountered at Spalding. If you would like to find out more about The Spalding low residency MFA in Writing Program, click here.
BIO: Angela Jackson-Brown is an award winning writer and poet who teaches Creative Writing and English at Ball State University in Muncie, IN. Her work has been widely published in journals like The Louisville review, New Southerner Literary Review and 94 Creations, to name a few. She is the author of, Drinking From A Bitter Cup, and is hard at work writing her second novel.