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Because, the Ferguson Verdict by Ira Sukrungruang


Reprinted by permission of the author.
This essay was originally published in Clockhouse, Volume 5.


In “Because, the Ferguson Verdict,” Ira Sukrungruang employs anaphora to dramatize the ripple effect of the November 2014 Ferguson verdict, when a grand jury failed to indict the white policeman who shot and killed Michael Brown. The repetition of “Because” adds to the mounting urgency of questions without clear answers, a series of unspoken “Whys.”

Why does this verdict mean so much to him and so many others? His story begins at the beginning of his own family’s experience of racism in America. “Because, in 1978, we were the first Thai family in a working class neighborhood of Chicago, predominantly inhabited by Polish and Irish. Because we found our mailbox off its post every weekend, the aluminum dented in the shape of a baseball bat.” Because the violence in his childhood mounts. Fights, guns, bullying, the indifference of police, who laugh at his mother’s accent. “Because I was not white.”

Why is he asking questions? “Because we are always looking for an answer, a reason why things happen, why there is so much hate in the world, in a city, in a home. Because the word ‘because’ demands cause and effect, demands sequential understanding, though in the face of hate there is only cause, cause, cause. Because the effect is this country on the brink of chaos.” The repetition of “Because” suggests that there are many answers. The format of one lengthy paragraph, punctuated by “Because” with no breaks, suggests there is no logical or “sequential understanding” of a country still on the “brink of chaos.” Sukrungruang moves from first person POV and first-person plural POV (his family) to a larger first-person plural to emphasize that this is our problem. (See his author’s note for more about the the craft choices in this piece.) We carry the “names of the deceased” within us. “Because here, in my heart, is our heart, beating, beating, beating.” “Because, the Ferguson Verdict” could not be more timely.  —CRAFT


 

Because, in 1978, we were the first Thai family in a working class neighborhood of Chicago, predominantly inhabited by Polish and Irish. Because we found our mailbox off its post every weekend, the aluminum dented in the shape of a baseball bat. Because rotten eggs splattered the white siding of our bi-level, which my mother scrubbed until she could see the pale of her face. Because someone scrawled on our driveway, Chinks Go Home, in shaving cream that stained and stayed on the concrete for weeks. Because at the tile factory off Archer Avenue my father got into a fight. Because a co-worker said he talked funny, and he was tired of everyone telling him he talked funny, and so he punched the offender in the face, who was as white as some of the floor tiles the factory churned out. Because we owned a gun, a heavy silver one with a leather handle, a safe guard against anyone out to do us harm. Because we believed everyone was out to do us harm. Because my father chased two boys away with the gun one night, his splayed feet slapping the concrete, his voice screaming obscenities until he was hoarse. Because those boys kept ding-dong-ditching our home till past midnight. Because we called the police and they never showed. Because I was four and endlessly crying, and my mother couldn’t shush me, so she pressed me hard to her chest, so hard my nose bled. Because a year later I found the gun in my father’s briefcase of important things, and I picked it up and pulled the trigger and nothing happened, but in my brain there was a bang that silenced robins. Because my mother’s first true purchase in the country, a ’74 Thunderbird, was stolen, and the police did nothing except laugh at her accent. Because they told her if she learned to speak better they’d take her more seriously, that if she wanted to live in America, she should speak like an American. Because my mother felt a smidgen of glee when she saw a police officer wheeled into the emergency room where she worked as a RN, but she did her job anyway. Because she knew a nurse’s job was right and thankless. Because her brother in Thailand was a police officer and his job was right and thankless. Because, despite herself, all police officers were not those police officers and those police officers were far and few between; we just managed to always find them. Because a year later, the Thunderbird was found in pieces in the parking lot of an abandoned steel factory. Because my family was referred to as chink, gook, jap, words that in no way referenced us but we carried the wounds they carved anyway, like etchings in the pale bark of a cypress. Because words had the ability to crumble us. Because the word “bitch” uttered by the white three-year-old boy behind our house forced my mother to enroll me in Tae Kwon Do, so I could defend her honor. Because honor was what we had left. Because we clung to our honor like a safety blanket. Because honor sometimes made me do stupid things like breaking windows and blowing up mailboxes, like punching a little boy in the nose for calling my mother a bitch. Because honor is linked to pride, which is linked to stupidity. Because sometimes we were stupid. Because once on a spring day I was surrounded by white boys who beat me down and someone stole the Buddha hanging around my neck. Because I was eight. Because I was not white. Because I spoke with an accent. Because a white man with receding hair stood in his driveway and watched the beating before complaining that I tore up his grass in my attempt to kick free. Because no matter how hard I was taught to kick and punch at the dojo, it never seemed hard enough, bloody enough. Because it never managed to restore anything, but instead let guilt settle in the stomach, heavy and laden, like the brick I launched at the house across the street from the Chicago Thai Buddhist temple, after news that a monk was hit with a rock and had to get ten stitches on his brow. Because police officers did not come then either. Because I was angry. Because I was scared. Because it seemed I loved hiding in the shadows more than standing in the light. Because the light exposed my fear of the world. Because my fear of the world started with my mother’s familiar line, heard over and over throughout my life: “You are not like them. Always remember that.” Because I learned they are not like them either. Because we are always looking for an answer, a reason why things happen, why there is so much hate in the world, in a country, in a city, in a home. Because the word “because” demands cause and effect, demands sequential understanding, though in the face of hate there is only cause, cause, cause. Because the effect is this country on the brink of chaos. Because we are looking for some sense in senselessness. Because we need to be saved. Because, despite our anger bubbling over, I cling to the belief that we are able to love. Because of Buddha. Because of God. Because of Allah. Because we are human, blood and biology, and able to show empathy and forgiveness and understanding, the flowers of humanity about to burst under great duress. Because of Emmitt Till or Rodney King or Vincent Chin or Kuanchang Kao, who police officers shot because they feared his martial arts moves. Because of the history we carry within us, a history that, no matter how much we want to deny it, is part of the genetic make-up of our being. Because we carry all these histories, heavy and burdened. Because we share this body of history, which joins—never separates—us. Because here, in my palms, are all of the social and political injustices enacted on our planet. Because here, under my fingernail, is the debris from centuries of war. Because here, in each follicle of hair, are the names of the deceased, slain because of race or gender or sexual orientation. Because here, inside the cavity of my ear, are tears shed. Because here, in my heart, is our heart, beating, beating, beating.

Because. Because. Because.

 


IRA SUKRUNGRUANG is the author of the memoirs Southside Buddhist and Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, the short story collection The Melting Season, and the poetry collection In Thailand It Is Night. He is the coeditor of two anthologies on the topic of obesity: What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology and Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology. He is the recipient of the 2015 American Book Award, New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature, an Arts and Letters Fellowship, and the Emerging Writer Fellowship. His work has appeared in many literary journals, including Post Road, The Sun, and Creative Nonfiction. He is one of the founding editors of Sweet: A Literary Confection, and is the current Richard L. Thomas Chair and Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College.

 

Author’s Note

We live in a culture that loves to simplify things. It is a culture that stands resolute on answers while never interrogating the question. It is a culture that seeks to fix rather than listen. It is a culture that doesn’t allow for the complexity of the human spirit because these complexities are hard to face, these complexities create an uncomfortable gray area in which to exist and live. This is the reason, I believe, some of us turn to the writing and reading of literature. Literature represents undefined areas. It does not claim an answer. It shows the lives of individuals; it shows various types of suffering whether it is physical, emotional, or existential. The Buddhist I am believes there is no hierarchy to suffering, though we are told how and why and when we should suffer all the time. Literature, good literature, enlightens, confuses, and never claims to be in the know. That’s the beauty of it. We enter with questions, and sometimes we leave with more questions. That’s okay. It is the reason we turn to literature in times of turmoil—like now, like throughout all of American history—because without it we are lonely in our heartbreak. Many of us feel alone when dealing with issues of inequality and violence and abuse. We feel stranded. 

“Because, the Ferguson Verdict” began as a cathartic release of anger and frustration and so, so, so much sorrow. It was, at first, a self-serving exercise. It was meant for me and only me because I could not contain my myriad emotions when hearing that verdict rendered on November 24, 2014. There was no other outlet but the page. I scribbled as fast as I could everything that I was thinking. When you have experienced racism, when you have been hurt by the world, and when the world continually breaks your heart, what unfolds is an onslaught of memories—aggression and microaggressions enacted on the body. This is the “body” Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks of in his letter to his son, Between the World and Me: “You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” It was my body that hurt. It was my body that was angry. It was my body that wanted to throw rationality out the window because the world no longer responded to rationality. The world was irrational. The world had once again broken us, me, in an irreparable way. 

So I let the writing go. I let it move without break. Without pause. One sentence bled into another sentence into another sentence. No paragraphs. And I noticed that each sentence, or most of the sentences, began with the same word: Because. 

Because, defined: “For the reason that” or “To give reason or explanation.” Right after the verdict—after any injustice for that matter—I heard this word everywhere. Politicians, news pundits, people interviewed. Because, because, because. Because simplified. Every article I read during that time period contained the word because. Every article simplified race and racial violence. 

Because, defined: conjunction, a cause and effect construct.

I hate the word because.  

But it was there. In my own writing. Because. To give reason. To explain. Anyone who has ever experienced racism, there is someone always trying to explain what we experienced away. Someone is always saying racism does not exist. Someone is always saying we are too sensitive. If you read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen—please do—you’ll learn these acts of racism remain ingrained within the individual, and if we risk sharing it, we risk ridicule. But to us, these moments stick. They come back, again and again, they come back. Especially when we sit and watch the news of another Black person killed. Another school shooting. Another act of violence. They come back. Over and over. Because and because.

The thing I’ve been experimenting with is how the body responds when writing something that is close, that hurts. What shape does the writing take? What is the breath like when someone reads it? This essay is one thick paragraph because racism is one long, never ending history, yet our culture is one that forgets and skips and selects. To write this essay in breaks would be to adhere to how it is represented in our culture, to adhere to rules of grammar, rules that, in this essay, do not matter. The length and density of the essay is meant to overwhelm, meant to signify an oppressed and enraged state of mind. But this rage is controlled. It has to be. If it isn’t the writing loses meaning. Loses intent. In its density, I’ve tried to impose lyrical order—individual moments, all those moments in my life when I have been faced with hate; it unspools almost chronologically—though time does not matter—only moments. As the essay grows, the idea of race sharpens. It moves past the “I.” It moves toward a “we.” A collective breath held. A collective voice of what? 

Hope. 

Because—damn this word!—after all my anger, I still retained hope. 

If there is one thing about the word because I like it is this: Because is two syllables. A heartbeat.         

 


IRA SUKRUNGRUANG is the author of the memoirs Southside Buddhist and Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, the short story collection The Melting Season, and the poetry collection In Thailand It Is Night. He is the coeditor of two anthologies on the topic of obesity: What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology and Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology. He is the recipient of the 2015 American Book Award, New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature, an Arts and Letters Fellowship, and the Emerging Writer Fellowship. His work has appeared in many literary journals, including Post Road, The Sun, and Creative Nonfiction. He is one of the founding editors of Sweet: A Literary Confection, and is the current Richard L. Thomas Chair and Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College.