ST. LOUIS — Within a month of Michael Brown’s killing, #FergusonReads was formed.
“There was such a thirst for finding out more,” Kris Kleindienst, co-owner of Left Bank Books, said of the store’s new book club. “People really seemed to want to gather and talk.”
Likewise, customers were buying books about police violence and racial inequity. The local protests and their grounding in history were shocking, especially to white people, she says.
The store’s book club ran as Ferguson Reads for about two years and is still going, with a wider theme, as Read the Resistance.
“Ferguson elevated the awareness of literary activism,” said Kleindienst, who has been a bookseller for more than four decades.
Jason Vasser-Elong, a St. Louis poet, says, “Writers from many backgrounds have, and continue to respond, to the unfortunate events of 2014.”
In August of that year, he had written “Picking up, in Ferguson” directly in response to the protests. The Post-Dispatch published it, but a recent collection of his work, “Shrimp,” does not include the Ferguson poem.
Vasser-Elong says much, however, in the short “Pocket poem #1”:
I’m sure the world is tired
of angry Black man poems
about the struggle as much as those angry Black men are tired of struggling
Although his book’s works mostly involve other topics, he said by email that he continues to write about Ferguson:
“There are many white writers who have continued to write toward healing along with their fellow writers of color. So in my opinion, writers from different backgrounds are rallying behind the unity among those within the community that are fed up with the implicit/explicit bias and other forms of oppression.”
Besides writers, spoken-word poets also continue to reference Ferguson in their performances.
In 2014, writer Susan Grigsby foretold the trend:
“I think that there is always a role for the arts as a healing force in our lives but that what we need varies depending on where we are within the stages of a situation. Music, song, dance, eulogy, the poetry of poetic masters, the poetry of sacred books, and speeches of persuasion all seem to be powerful ways, for listeners and participants, to cope when in the midst of turmoil.”
During the last five years, the publishing industry has released a growing number of books by writers of color and about black history.
Books directly about Ferguson have included some from local police (“13 Days in Ferguson” by Capt. Ronald Johnson; “Policing Ferguson, Policing America” by Thomas Jackson), Michael Brown’s mother (“Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil” by Lezley McSpadden with Lyah LeFlore), activists (“On the Other Side of Freedom” by DeRay Mckesson; “Ferguson and Faith” by Leah Gunning Francis) and lawyers and journalists.
“The St. Louis Anthology,” published this year, includes pieces with references to Michael Brown and St. Louis’ history of racism. In one, Pamela Garvey writes: “By now, Ferguson has become an emblem of institutional racism. Many don’t know Ferguson is a microcosm not only of racism in the U.S., but also of St. Louis itself — one of the most segregated cities in the nation.”
Kleindienst agrees that the publishing industry as a whole seems to have felt the influence of Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“As the adult book buyer, I would say that more mainstream book publishers are publishing trade books about these issues,” she said.
Although books about social justice and race aren’t “flying out of here the way they did for a long while,” she said, there is still interest, especially from local groups ordering them for various classes and programs. “Witnessing Whiteness” is used, for example, by an ongoing YMCA program at the Midtown branch.
Ferguson and similar high-profile cases may also have affected various book genres, including children’s publishing, Kleindienst notes. “Folks clamoring for more diversity in publishing are finally getting listened to,” she said. “But there’s still a long way to go.”
Vasser-Elong says writers aren’t finished exploring Ferguson but may be linking it more to their personal lives. “I think, in many ways, there are voices just beginning to be heard while others continue to ring out at a new dawn of writers and artists, ready to shine their lights on all of the good of what’s to come.”
More on Michael Brown
Brown, 18, who was black, had recently graduated from high school in Ferguson, Missouri, and was set to start his freshman year at college. He was shot to death by a white police officer around noon on Aug. 9, 2014, in front of his grandmother’s house. Brown was shot a total of six times from the front. A grand jury decided not to indict officer Darren Wilson, who also was cleared of federal civil rights violations in the shooting. The U.S. Justice Department concluded that Wilson shot Brown in self-defense.