Lyman Report: Rashad Timmons on Racialized Geography in Ferguson

04 Sep, 2023

Lyman Report: Rashad Timmons on Racialized Geography in Ferguson

We're so pleased to have awarded Rashad Timmons the 2022 Lyman Fellowship. Read below how the Fellowship assisted his research this past summer.

With the support of the Lyman Fellowship, I traveled to Ferguson, Missouri to engage in fieldwork and archival research for my dissertation. I returned with a suite of historical data, heightened contextual clarity about Ferguson as racialized geography, and a timely lesson about the poetics of infrastructure.

Returning to Ferguson, I had a striking realization about the interaction of race, space, and power in the small suburb: black life in Ferguson, past and present, is lived hard and at the margins of infrastructure.

The earliest black lives in the region were enslaved captives who performed hard agricultural labor on the coveted farm of Thomas Thruston January—the man largely responsible for bringing the railroad to and through Ferguson. In addition to being one of the largest slaveholders in antebellum St. Louis County, January was elected Vice President of the North Missouri Railroad in April 1854 and led the Committee on Location of Construction. Wielding this power, he lobbied for the railroad to run through his expansive tract of farmland at the northwestern edge of the present city boundaries. A pond on his property was used to supply water to locomotives at the nearby Ferguson train station.

January commanded iron, “the exemplary material of the nineteenth century” (Larkin, 2013, p. 338), and leveraged its properties toward intemperate and clandestine uses. While he campaigned for the laying of iron rails across the varied landscape of northern Missouri, he subjected the bondswomen and men he owned to iron instruments of torture and bondage. Thus, the color line in early Ferguson was as entrenched and hard as the metal tracks that brought the modest city into being. White farmers, slaveholding aristocrats, businessmen, and industrialists all affirmed their liberal subjecthood through rail travel and modern mobility. Black personhood, in contrast, was spatialized and profoundly defined by “architectures of confinement” (Shabazz, 2015, p.1).

These hard legacies of racial subjugation, infrastructural vulnerability, and violent spatial enclosure remain present in Ferguson today. They subsist in the strategies of carceral power and geographic confinement that underpinned Michael “Mike Mike” Brown, Jr.’s tragic murder nine years ago. Black life in Ferguson, in other words, is still lived hard and at the margins of infrastructure.

But in the context of this living history of hardness, everyday black people in Ferguson taught me an auspicious lesson on the ninth anniversary of Michael Brown, Jr.’s killing. Mike Mike died a violent and hard death. His physical absence remains hard on his people. In 2014, his family and community watched him lie, sullied and neglected, for hours beneath the hard August sun, on the hard ground. When his punctured body was taken from the pavement, only his blood was left behind. Hardened and faithful witnesses, they showered what remained of him with everything bright, soft, and gentle: teddies and keepsakes, tearful prayers and love notes, roses and vibrant candles. They claimed roadway infrastructure and used it to be delicate. They gave Mike Mike and each other what Ferguson, and the broader world, could not—softness. They have not forgotten Mike Mike, nor have they forgotten this ritual.

This year, I helped them remember as we gathered on Canfield Drive. In the same place where Mike Mike perished, we painted. At the exact spot where he was defiled, we chalked messages of our love for him. For every measure of hardness in the road where he took his final breath, for the hard and many assaults on his precious life, and for all the hardness suffered by black lives across time, we placed offerings of living and soft things: teddies and keepsakes, tearful prayers and love notes, roses and vibrant candles. We held each other softly amidst the hardness of our grief. In each other’s arms, we exchanged softness until it blanketed the asphalt, the sidewalks, the structures, the soil, and everything around us. The sky opened and a light rain softened the ground beneath our feet. And the hard and deathly street, as we stood in its center rather than its margins, felt soft and alive.

In that moment, an important message became clear. Despite the hardness of living at the margins of infrastructure, black life persists across time by cultivating spaces where softness can thrive. Black life persists by appropriating hard spaces and infrastructures toward softer, contrary ends.

In the archives, I learned that the slaves of Thomas T. January used the pond on his property for baptisms, ritual, and worship. Pondwater carried by a hard subterranean pipe to support whites-only trains was appropriated by black toilers for sacred performances of soft renewal and self-determination. In the field, I watched a similar dynamic transform the narrow road where Mike Mike’s body expired into a tender site of righteous mourning, communal care, and critical memory. I learned that black life in Ferguson is also lived softly, despite the prevalence of a dominant order so hard on the land, hard on black people, and hard on all living things.

I am grateful to the Berkeley Center for New Media for granting me the Lyman Fellowship. This support allowed me to advance my archival and field research. It also provided an opportunity to see and feel the stakes of my work in new ways.