Kairos in Ferguson

Each Wednesday we feature an article from Capital Commentary, a weekly current affairs publication by the Center for Public Justice. To read more, visit http://www.capitalcommentary.org.

On August 9, Michael Brown was shot six times on a street in Ferguson, Missouri. He was a black teenager; his killer was a white police officer. The public response, which began the same day with chants like “kill the police” and has remained vitriolic for weeks, has put this event in the same category as the Rodney King beating. How in the world are we supposed to respond? What can one begin to say about such a thing?

Fourteen years ago I began teaching college rhetoric using Writing Arguments (Longman, now in its 9th edition). Since then I’ve taught the same course at different institutions using Perspectives on Argument (also Longman), Everything’s an Argument (Bedford/St. Martin’s), Inquiry: Questioning, Reading, Writing (again, Longman) and other textbooks. Some stress personal expression while others approach the subject more forensically. If this sounds like the most boring undergraduate experience ever, I wish you could take my class, because we always have a lot of fun with the rhetorical triangle (logosethospathos) as well as its vital fourth point, kairos.

I mention all this partly to establish my credibility (ethos) and partly so readers will feel sorry for me (pathos) but mostly as an excuse to geek out over the underrepresented rhetorical principle of kairos, which means, essentially, timeliness. Ideally a text hits all four points, but sometimes one of them is powerful enough on its own; the whirlwind of verbal responses to the Ferguson Riots has depended largely on kairos. Before we look at a couple of those texts here, check out the kairos Wikipedia page, which explains not only the concept’s classical origins but the way the term is used in the Christian New Testament, where it means “the appointed time” (Mark 1:15 and elsewhere). In rhetoric, kairos refers to a transcendent sense of being in the right place at the right time, the way a text exists in the pantheon of history, as distinguished from chronos which means merely linear time (or circumstantial opportunity).

Reading Ferguson has been a textbook case of reading chronos versus kairos; some texts have flattened into temporal space, receding into chatter, while others have risen. Let’s look at one of each.

When rapper J. Cole visited Ferguson, Missouri, the world followed along thanks to St. Louis Alderman Antonio French’s minute-by-minute Twitter reports (subsequently admired by USA Today). Cole seemed to be the real deal—when most of the celebrities who weighed in did so only on Twitter or some other form of social media, Cole ventured to Ferguson in his civvies. He didn’t bring a PR person, because it wasn’t a stunt. He really, apparently, cared about what was happening and, being African American himself, wanted to express solidarity with other African Americans.

As a person who has been otherwise a fan of J. Cole—hooked when “Who Dat 2” came out three years ago (“I’m just a braniac / who don’t know where his brain be at / I’m smokin’ huckleberries / so I guess I’m Mark Twainin’ it”)—I found his Ferguson-inspired “Be Free” to be, as a Grantland article would later confirm, “mad corny.” The rhymes were weak (“I will stand my ground, / Don't just stand around”) and the plea was retreaded civil rights era sentiment (“All we want to do is break the chains off / All we want to do is be free”). More problematically, it was not specific to Ferguson. No reference to Mike Brown, tear gas, cops in armored trucks. Cole had a lot to work with and missed it.

The second example is from another rapper, Killer Mike. His quote in the same Grantland article shows he’s paying attention: “Children dead in the middle of the streets of America by government sanction is supposed to be … unfathomable.” His beautiful longer statement, published as an Instagram caption, reads like a prose poem. “We are human beings,” it begins, and contains devastating moments like, “[Mike Brown’s parents] are humans that produced a child and loved that child and that child was slaughtered like Game and left face down as public spectacle while his blood drained down the street. Look at the pain of this mother, look into her eyes.” Behind her is a father that “cud not defend his seed.” He concludes, “Forgive any typos love and respect u all.”

Judged formally, this may be dismissed as dashed-off commentary; but if we judge Killer Mike’s statement by its kairos, it is a noteworthy, even elevated, moment in twenty-first century race discourse. He has capitalized not only on the moment but turned the oppressive, dehumanizing animal imagery back against its source. “We are human beings,” he writes.

- Aaron Belz has published three volumes of poetry, The Bird Hoverer (BlazeVOX, 2007), Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010) and Glitter Bomb (Persea, 2014). He is the poet laureate of Hillsborough, North Carolina.