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  • Literary Justice in the Post-Ferguson Classroom
  • Mary I. Unger (bio)

The fall of 2015 saw a sharp rise in student activism across the country in response to state violence against black bodies and systemic racism in higher education. Student protests at the University of Missouri ignited a wave of marches, sit-ins, and other acts at colleges and universities across the nation.1 Even at my own small, predominantly white institution, students, staff, and faculty held a "Die-In," launched an "It Happens Here" campaign to promote awareness of racial hostility on campus, and hosted a social justice retreat. These efforts and similar ones at institutions all over the country have not only put pressure on administrators to change structures of learning that reinforce white supremacy but also have served as an outlet for a powerful range of emotions—outrage, despair, and sorrow—that students feel when education complies with institutionalized racism, homophobia, and other forms of physical and representational violence. In alliance with efforts that originated outside the academy, such as Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name, student movements such as Concerned Student 1950 have sought to give voice to those emotions while demanding forms of justice continually denied in courtrooms from Ferguson to Cleveland, Waller County, and Baltimore.2

In this moment of increasing student outrage over legal injustices, what kind of justice can the classroom offer? A rich archive of articles, blogs, websites, and initiatives already exists, advising educators on how to address recent events in school curricula at all levels. Marcia Chatelain's #FergusonSyllabus Twitter campaign is an indispensable resource, as is Frank Leon Roberts's Black Lives Matter online syllabus project. Other posts and stories by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NPR also directly engage the ethics of the post-Ferguson classroom. The release of Beyoncé's video album, Lemonade, in the spring of 2016 quickly inspired more projects in the name of social justice education, such as Candice Benbow's Lemonade Syllabus and Kinitra D. Brooks's course at the University of Texas at San Antonio, "Black Women, Beyoncé, & Popular Culture." But how does the literature classroom engage this conversation about activism, racial injustice, and education? While our colleagues in sociology, political science, and other disciplines are perhaps more directly engaged with issues [End Page 92] of public policy and structural racism, what can we, as teachers of language and literature—particularly of multi-ethnic literatures of the United States—contribute? What role does the literary classroom serve in this post-Ferguson era for combating racial injustice? What might literary justice look and feel like?

Theories of literature and justice have more traditionally emerged from scholarship on Holocaust literature and trauma studies. In The Juridical Unconscious: Trials and Traumas in the Twentieth Century (2002), for instance, Shoshana Felman examines how the legal language of trials, beginning with Nuremberg, reenacts rather than contains trauma. In contrast to legal discourse, she writes, literature offers "a compelling existential, correlative yet differential dimension of meaning." Literature, in other words, has the potential to offer alternative forms of knowing when other epistemologies fail. This is because, unlike "the language of the law," literature "encapsulates not closure but precisely what in a given legal case refuses to be closed and cannot be closed. It is to this refusal of the trauma to be closed that literature does justice" (8). I am interested in the ways that literature in the post-Ferguson classroom does justice to this "refusal of the trauma to be closed" and how that refusal might in turn catalyze new epistemologies that "do justice to [racialized] trauma in a way the law does not, or cannot" (8). The literary classroom can stimulate acts of judging, witnessing, and testifying that reform or even radicalize students' understandings of race and identity in this post-Ferguson moment. "For the justice movement," Claire Guthrie Gastañaga writes, "there is a pre-Ferguson and post-Ferguson," although America's criminal justice system has long proved unjust for many marginalized populations. If we define the post-Ferguson era as one that has graphically exposed the failure of our legal system to achieve or even seek justice—if it has...


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