• Mariama Suwaneh

Reflections from Ferguson Part One: For Such a Time as This

It’s thundering and pouring down rain as I write this; perhaps it’s fitting because my soul feels restless and all I want to do is cry for the next few weeks.

Today, I woke up with flashbacks. I remember traveling through the streets of St. Louis Country with my grandfather figure, Uncle Al. I arrived in the county two weeks before spring break began in 2015. I was signed up to join a grassroots social justice organization in Ferguson to support the community in their rebuilding after the uprisings in protest of the death of Michael Brown, Jr.

True to my spirit, I was curious. I wanted to explore the county, talk to its residents, and draw my own conclusions on the situation before someone else shared theirs with me. Uncle Al and his wife lived outside of Ferguson and in a quiet part of the county, up on a big hill, and in their own little world it seemed. But as Uncle Al and I toured the city, I quickly learned that no matter how far outside of the epicenter you lived, you could still feel the restless spirit of the space.

Uncle Al shared stories with me about his time in St. Louis County during our many care rides around the space. Some of the stories were filled with love, laughter, and cookouts; some were riddles with others’ hatred, racism, deep pain and confusion, and the effects of systems working exactly how they were designed - to disempower communities of color.

These car rides themselves were a walk through history but it was what I saw outside the windows that continue to haunt me to this day. For the first time, I saw inexplicable poverty next to beautifully tailored privilege. We traveled down a street where on one side of the road, there were beautiful brand new homes with a fresh coat of paint and perfectly cut green grass. White families danced in their living rooms and you children played in their front yards. Just behind them, the homes told a completely different story. Busted windows and cracked staircases were stapled on the houses in the shadows, and as I peeped through blinds, you could see black families sitting inside on their couches watching tv and black grandmothers sitting outside on their wooden rocking chairs. My heart sank at the hard disparities.

Fast forward to another one of Uncle Al and I’s car rides. I had been in St. Louis for a little over a week now and we had yet to make our way over to Ferguson. While I was thankful for the learning I was having, I remember thinking to myself that I hadn’t come all this way just to see busted homes in black communities. I wanted to be in the middle of the action; I wanted to see where it all took place. So on an afternoon when Uncle Al and I were both full off of grilled turkey and cheese sandwiches, we headed out to Ferguson, Missouri.

I remember Uncle Al was particularly quiet on this trip; this was unlike him. Uncle Al was a tall, round, black man, who in all honesty looked like Black Santa and had the demeanor of one, too. He was a vibrant soul, always laughing or making someone laugh. His hugs remain one of my favorite things in the world, and he had this unwavering ability to be present, calm, and joyful. I can’t remember a time when I saw him frown. Uncle Al made everywhere he was present feel like home. But for some reason, even with the sounds of Billie Holiday and Kirk Franklin playing in the background, I couldn’t quite catch that feeling of home.

We had been driving for what felt like forever, my anticipation at an all time high when Uncle Al turned to me and said, “Honey, this isn't going to be easy for you to see. This is what happens when we push God out of a place with our anger and fear.” I looked at him for a long time, then slowly turned to look out the window. I didn't understand what he meant. But after we rounded the corner it all made sense.

Pieces of debris still lined the streets of Ferguson almost 8 months after the initial uprisings. Some part of me still expected to see people with picket signs or some visual representation that the community was still fighting. But there was nothing. People walked down the street, waited at bus stops, and drove through the community as if nothing had happened. Then there was me - frozen in my seat with so much anger, pain, and confusion, tears filled my eyes and I could do nothing but cry.

Uncle Al said nothing. He simply drove a smooth 15 mph until we reached the corner where a burned down building memorialized all that had happened there less than a year prior. He pulled over, we got out, and I just stood there, taking it all in. On one piece of piping, there were spray painted words; they read, “Jesus Help Us!” After standing there, for a few minutes, Uncle Al came over to me, wrapped his big comforting arm around my shoulders and said, “I’ve seen a lot of things in my lifetime and I know what it looks like when you feel conflicted. Baby, if you remember nothing else from your time here in St. Louis remember this: God will always be your source of peace. When folks start shooting, and buildings start burning, all you need to do is pray. Find you some people that will get on their knees with you. God will give you all the wisdom you need to guide others through their pain. That’s what you’ve been called to do. That’s why you’re here.”

I stared at the words, “Jesus Help Us!” for a little while longer, but eventually my gaze shifted down to my feet. I was kicking little pebbles back and forth between my Converse and by this point, Uncle Al had found his way back to the car. I was just standing there, replaying his words in my head. This is what I’ve been called to do? Just pray? They are killing us and all Uncle can say is “Just Pray?” Every fiber of my body was tense. I noticed myself flicking my pinky finger with my thumb, a response I have when my body is feeling overwhelmed. Why should I be expected to pray when people are dying every day? I mean, I was just on the front lines of UW’s largest walk out ever! I demand justice. I’m not the one who needs God’s wisdom, it’s all those racists who need God’s wisdom. I could not have been more wrong.

Heartbreak and despair still filling my mind, I slowly walked over to the car, fastened my seat belt and together, Uncle Al and I rode home in silence. No music. Just the sound of the motor and the swishing of the wind as it flowed through my slightly cracked window. If the drive to Ferguson felt like it had taken years, the drive home felt like an absolute eternity. The entire ride home, I struggled to pinpoint exactly how I felt. Was I mad? Was I sad? And if I was, who was I mad at - the police for killing Michael Brown and forcing the community to make their concerns known by any means necessary? Or was I mad at the community for not being out there still rallying people together?

To this day, the only moment in my life that trumps the level of confusion I felt that day was the time I made the decision to leave my childhood home in search of an emotionally safe living situation.

When we got back to the house, Uncle Al parked the car and I could feel his smiling face looking over at me. I was in no mood to be cheered up so still in silence, I went to stand at the door. As Uncle Al approached, he thanked me for spending the afternoon with him and starting talking about how excited he was for whatever we were having for dinner that night. He unlocked the door and his joy-filled, “Hello!” to Uncle Betty filled the halls. Annoyed and emotionally exhausted, I headed straight to my room.

I don't remember much of what happened that evening. Maybe I wrote in my journal, maybe I didn't. Maybe I left my room for dinner, maybe I didn't. But to this day, I remember the feeling of that knot in my stomach - the one that let me know I was built for such a time as this.

Here I am, five years after experiencing Ferguson, and I feel that knot in my stomach once again - the one that is telling me I am built for such a time as this. And I am assuming you are reading this because you feel it too. I learned from my time in Ferguson that there is no quick fix for racism. It’s a heart issue and changing people’s hearts is one of the hardest things to do.

But if you are like me and you are feeling that knot in your stomach, let me be your “Uncle Al.” I’ve got some words for you:

I’ve seen a lot of things in my lifetime and I know what it feels like to be conflicted - to want to fight for justice peacefully, but to be so fed up and angry you don't care how it happens anymore, you just want it to happen. In these moments, remember this: God will always be your source of peace. When folks start shooting, and buildings start burning, all you need to do is pray. Find you some people that will get on their knees with you. God will give you all the wisdom you need to guide you through your pain. That’s what you’ve been called to do. That’s why you’re here.

Pause. Breathe. Pray. Strategize. Motivate. Activate. Repeat. You were created for such a time as this.

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by Mariama Suwaneh

 © 2020 Own Your Audacious by Mariama Suwaneh.