Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson, Racism, and The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll


Last night the Grand Jury came back regarding the unlawful shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO. The Grand Jury declared that Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown, was not guilty of any wrongdoing. I'm not the most educated person on the situation, and you can read much better analyses of this whole situation here and here and here.

I sat up last night trying to think of an article for today. It's Tuesday, and I normally talk about children's media on Tuesdays. I like to emphasize how important it is to be mindful of what media we show our children, because stories shape who we are and who we will become. I talk a lot about the value of showing kids media from diverse cultures and media with different races of protagonist and media that exposes them to whole new ideas about the world. I do this because I believe it's really important. I do this because I believe talking about it makes the world a better place.

But this morning I'm tired. I don't know what to say. I can't think of a movie to talk about, or a series of adorable children's books, or even a stupid show on PBS that I could blather on about for fifteen hundred words. All I have is sadness and resignation. The understanding that no matter how far we have come in the past century, there is still further to go.

I'm sad. I'm really sad. So, I did what I always do when I'm sad, and I listened to a sad song. Not just any song, though. I listened to what might be the saddest song I know, and also the most hopeful. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, by Bob Dylan. Here, I've embedded it below. Take a listen.



If you had trouble catching the lyrics, here's what it's about. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll is a song written almost entirely out of newspaper articles - verbatim, in a lot of places - regarding the real life incident where a rich white man beat an African-American woman to death in public and received only a six month sentence. 

On the surface it's kind of a horrible song. As the lyrics openly state, William Zantzinger killed Hattie Carroll for literally no reason and was never in any meaningful way held accountable for his crimes. It's easy to equate this to Darren Wilson and Mike Brown and the Grand Jury failing to indict. 

But if you only look at the surface, you miss the larger meaning of the song, and that's the part that gives me hope. Because while William Zantzinger never faced any substantial legal ramifications for his actions, this song followed him for the rest of his life. Think about that. For the rest of his life, everyone knew his name and knew what he'd done. They never forgot.

More than that, though, the song makes a very important and valid point. Just as much as it's about never forgetting what William Zantzinger did, it's also about remembering who Hattie Carroll was. The song is called The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, not "The Horrible Actions of William Zantzinger". It's about her, and it helps us to remember a woman whose life was cut short. A woman who might easily have been forgotten.

As humans, it's hard to have a clear view of what justice is or should be. We are, by our natures, blinded to the hearts and motivations of others. We don't know everything. We understand right and wrong, but we can easily be swayed by sympathy for those we feel are "like us" or when we feel someone is being unfairly attacked.

I think what Darren Wilson did was wrong, and he deserves to be tried in court for his actions. However. I also believe that more than just not forgetting what Darren Wilson did, we need to remember who Mike Brown was. We need to remember who all of them were, the hundreds of black men and women who have been killed and whose families have never seen justice. We need to remember them, because they are the ones who really matter.

Remember Mike Brown. Remember Hattie Carroll. And please, please, please, remember that they were both children once. Children who wanted to grow up and be amazing. Don't we all deserve that chance?

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