If you have ever driven on the expressway or a back country road, more than likely you have passed sites of memorial. Peeking up between the blades of overgrown grass, a wooden cross marks the site where someone lost his or her life. There are degrees of grief, ranging from hand painted names to teddy bears. They stand as reminders of life once lived and markers of the place where life failed to reach forward into the next second. Generally, we just drive past these memorials. Workers cut the grass around them, still preserving the respect of what that moment was for somebody in this world.
But, one week ago today, a memorial positioned across the road from where Michael Brown was killed, was reduced to ashes. Rest with that for a moment.
Cards and homemade drawings with expressions of love and forgiveness. Ashes.
Balloons, shaped like hearts and American flags. Ashes.
Flowers, long dead, still preserving hope and justice within their petals. Ashes.
Plainly put: fire destroys. When someone burns a memorial of a deceased human being, they are denying everyone the right to heal. Both the oppressor and the oppressed cannot face the impact of what happened to Michael Brown’s memorial, let alone his body, if we can’t go directly to the infected wounds of police brutality, fear of Black bodies, and the failure to move forward with the protocol of justice.
Along with our inability to heal, fire can destroy memory. Imagine the impact of burning down a sacred memorial in this country and never rebuilding it. Could you imagine Washington D.C. without the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier? Or New York without the 9/11 museum? If those memorials fail to exist, the memory won’t either. Forgetting is the consequence of burning.
If you consider yourself to be a teacher of social justice, stop. I need you to BE social justice. Being social justice means that through your teaching, we examine what memorials are being justified, what memorials are being “burned” so that we forget why they are there, and what memorials need to be created so that we can heal and remember.
Being social justice means dismantling structures of oppression, not burning. Being social justice means finding solutions to our problems rather talking endlessly about the problem itself.
Michael Brown’s memorial was rebuilt within a matter of hours. The people of Ferguson and the larger community understood the failure to rebuild would have meant our slow decline in forgetting Michael Brown.
Stephanie P. Jones is graduate teaching assistant and doctoral student at the University of Georgia. Her research interests include literacy practices of Black female youth and teacher education. She taught for six years in an urban high school and is currently working on a project involving teacher education and racial sites of trauma.