I like dystopian novels. I know I’m not alone in my penchant for this often bleak genre, but it nevertheless strikes me as odd to enjoy a style of novel that exists to point toward the ills of society.
A few months ago, George Orwell’s 1984 came up during a meeting, quite unexpectedly, and I had the opportunity to wax eloquent on dystopian novels as a genre and 1984 as a specific novel representative of the genre. Actually, I find that every few months or so I have occasion to discuss Orwell’s novel. A few months before the meeting I mentioned, my mother-in-law and I were discussing it, and it came up again a few days ago.
I was in a professional development session for English literacy teachers, and our topic was incorporating local community into our lessons. When our facilitator, April Fulstone, opened the session with a discussion of dystopian novels, I was intrigued. She showed us a text that described a post-catastrophe urban area where unjust laws and hopelessness ruled. The group discussed whether or not the text fit our shared definition of dystopian, and most of us were loathe to say that the text unequivocally fit our definition, because I think we were anxious about the ramifications if we did so. The text seemed to be about St. Louis, most specifically Ferguson, and I just don’t believe anyone wanted to see our home as a dystopian society.
But in many ways, it is.
Today marks the one year anniversary of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. Like many metropolitan areas across the country, St. Louis has its share of unjust laws (or laws applied unjustly) and hopelessness. Our region’s homicide rate is up, due to what some call the “Ferguson Effect,” and antimony in our justice and educational systems engenders hopelessness.
Driving down West Florissant Avenue today, past various memorial activities held in honor of Michael Brown and all his death stands for, I felt some of this hopelessness. Many businesses remain closed, shuttered, burned out, and crumbling. Crowds looked warily at the law enforcement officers present on the outskirts of gatherings. It is still necessary to teach my son and daughter survival tactics. And the news just aired images of a stand-off between police officers and protestors.
Yet there is also hope.
Businesses are rebuilding. Dialogue has continued and grown. People are moving into Ferguson. Our definitions of community and neighbor have broadened. People are seeking God.
I also find hope in memory. As long as we remember what happened to Michael Brown and others; as long as we remember the protests and violence; as long as we remember the war zone that was our backyard; as long as we remember the underlying social, political, educational, and legal underpinnings that orchestrate our communities, then this present dystopian society will fulfill the goal of every dystopian novel. It will draw our attention to the insidious creep of inequality coupled with ingrained power structures and warn us to create for ourselves a bright future instead of allowing our future to be created for us.
If only we listen.