ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
In the fall of 2015, I assigned nineteen students to write letters to dead people. To be more specific, my class wrote posthumous letters to victims of police brutality, in an exercise meant to connect them to individual stories. The assignment emerged from a moment of pedagogical crisis, during a time in which the nation had been rocked by the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, all Black men and women, at the hands of law enforcement. Protests on city streets and campuses had divided the country and our student body. I was teaching a journalism class I had developed at American University in Washington, D.C., called Race, Ethnic and Community Reporting. I had taught it annually six times before without incident, but 2015 had proved to be different. Letters of any kind were neither on my syllabus nor a common writing assignment in our discipline. Halfway through that semester, I felt compelled to deviate from both the plan and the norm.
I was friendlier to genre-crossing writing than many of my colleagues, who tended to have traditional newswriting backgrounds from legacy media outlets. I had too, with thirteen years as a staff writer at various regional daily newspapers before entering academia as a journalism professor in 2007. As part of that career change, I authored a memoir and dozens of published first-person creative nonfiction essays. I enjoyed opportunities to bring crossover work into the classroom, to lean into the porousness between memoir, creative nonfiction, and journalism, as I did with my own writing. First-person storytelling is enhanced by interviews and research, and vice versa. Nevertheless, I’d be lying if I said my letter-writing assignment was carefully curated from my hybrid background as a writer. It was a mid-semester pivot of desperation at a moment my racially diverse class was going off the rails (more on that later).
I had prompted my students to each research their deceased letter recipient’s story—not only the circumstances around their death, but also details of their lives before their fatal interactions with law enforcement. Then, unlike our usual more-structured journalistic writing assignments, I told them the rest was up to them. The resulting letters were profound, moving, and varied as my students themselves. One letter stuck with me, in part because it was addressed to one of the only Native American victims on the list I had compiled, and because of haunting poetry of the man’s name. A senior journalism major, a White woman named Samantha Hogan, wrote it.
Each of the letters began similarly, with the admittedly odd conceit of the student telling someone about their own death at the hands of police. But the retelling was a springboard for the student to then relate the story to broader events and almost inevitably, to their own lives.
A couple years later, I’d leave American University for another job at University of Colorado Boulder. Living in Denver, the Covid-19 pandemic and the terrible resonance of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, and others blurred my recollections of the students’ letters. Even so, Paul Castaway’s story, as written by Samantha, stayed with me just enough over the years to send a chill down my spine when, in the fall of 2022, I had a chance meeting with a Native American woman who told me her son was killed by city police in July 2015.
Lynn Eagle Feather told me the day we had met, October 10, 2022, would have been her son’s 43rd birthday. “What was his name?” I said, though I already knew. I wanted to invite her to say it, the way my students had hashtagged #SayTheirNames over and over again.
“Paul Castaway,” she said, her eyes tearing up. I put a hand on her arm, and she clasped it with her other hand, as if anchoring herself.
“I know something of your son’s story,” I said. “When I was a college professor in D.C., I had my student write a letter to him.”
“A letter,” Lynn said. “I don’t know for sure if he ever received it.”
I awkwardly explained that it was an exercise, a posthumous letter. She cried a bit more when I said the word “posthumous,” and in her face I saw the crumpling of the sweet idea of a college student writing to her living son. And I was beginning to feel that the writing assignment a bit of an ivory-tower boondoggle, when held up to the harsh light of the real world. What was the point of writing a letter in theory, to a person who could never read it? Why pain Lynn with the idea of it?
“Thank you for helping remember him,” she said before we parted ways, and which made me smile a bit. Yet so much about our meeting forced me to ask myself what—or whom—the letter-writing assignment had really been for.
Now, back to why my Race, Ethnic and Community Reporting class was in a pedagogically precarious state that Fall 2015. The complex stew of national events, a predominantly White institution (PWI) growing into incremental diversity gains, my own classroom demographics and dynamics—and my delayed reaction to them—created the crisis.
Since I had first launched the Race, Ethnic and Community Reporting course, a twenty-student seminar, it had always presented a demographic challenge to me. During class registration period, I embarked on a deliberate recruitment process, conscious of being on a campus where more than 60 percent of undergraduate students were White. Just as I did not think an all-White class would serve the topic, I also was leery that one, or even two, students of color might engender what I called the “Only One” syndrome. In both newsrooms and academia, I had often been the Only One in the room; I had gotten used to it, but I knew the pressures that came with that dynamic. That student might feel unduly pressured to speak for their racial group, or even to educate their peers, in that setting. I always told myself, “Three is best,” as I emailed former students of color from other classes, or made flyers for groups like the student National Association of Black Journalists chapter.
When I checked my initial enrollment for Fall 2015, aided by a photo roster, I was pleasantly surprised that the university and journalism department’s efforts to diversify their student populations seemed to be making a difference. Nearly half the twenty students were people of color, and of those, the majority were Black American, with a few Latino/a/x and Asian American Pacific Islander, and one Native American. Five weeks into the semester, our class had become preoccupied by national debates about the Black Lives Matter movement and a fraught racial climate on campus.
My Black students were arriving to class emotionally spent and raw. A few told me in office hours that, in other classes, heads would swivel their direction as White professors said things like, “Why do they always burn their own neighborhoods down?” Some had taken part in campus protests after anonymous racist comments about Michael Brown’s death, referring to him with racial slurs and calling Black Lives Matter protesters “hoodlums,” had emerged in a campus social-media forum. “The worst thing about it is that every time I’m in class with White students, I keep wondering if I’m sitting next to the student who posted that,” one student said. Though I invited them to share these observations in class if they felt comfortable, they chose not to. I understood. But what was not said in class amounted to one more thing the White students did not know about their Black classmates’ experiences and preoccupations at this time.
The palpable distrust that grew, week by week, left many of the White students in the class, particularly some of the White women, on edge. They prided themselves on their progressive politics and participation in Black Lives Matter protests. Eager to express support and empathy, but defensive if corrected, they talked more and more in class—and the Black students talked less and less. The other students of color tended to follow the lead of the Black students, and finally, the class discussions had become so stultified, I asked them all point-blank why so few of them were participating. “You were all so chatty the first week of class,” I said, making sure my eye contact swept across the entire class.
After a long, tense pause, one Black female student said, “The White women always speak first,” eliciting nods from several others. “They’re taking up all the space.” That class session ended with tears. I took responsibility for not intervening earlier. One White student walked out of the room. Some apologies were made, including by me, and everyone, even the White women, seemed relieved the unresolved tension had at least been named and spoken of. But as I watched them slump out of class that afternoon, the walking wounded, I knew that the next time the class met, something had to drastically change. It was time to scrap my syllabus and redirect the momentum. I thought back to my professional journalism training. My best editors had always told me that if I were stuck on a complicated or controversial story, I should find the least-powerful sphere of influence. That is, leave the scrum of reporters badgering the elected officials, paid spokespeople, or police chiefs, and seek out the smallest unit of measure—a single human impacted by, but without influence over, the issue. There, I could find a relatable entry point into a story, for myself and for readers.
It was with that thought in mind that I entered my class the next week with a paper bag full of slips of paper. I had made cut the slips of paper from a list I made of every recent victim of police brutality, or other racialized violence, I could name. Trayvon Martin went into the bag, as did Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Renisha McBride, Freddie Gray, and others. I also wanted them to explore historical figures that were important to me when I was their age, so I included Rodney King, who had barely survived his 1991 beating on video but had recently died in a drowning, and Vincent Chin, who died in 1982 at the hands of hate crime perpetrators, but whose death had launched the Asian American civil rights movement. I included Ricardo Diaz Zeferino, whose death fueled the #BrownLivesMatter movement. Native American men are the most likely demographic group to be killed by law enforcement, 12% more than even Black men. I wanted students to know the stories of Allen Locke, killed by a Rapid City Police officer in 2014 the day after attending a Native Lives Matter rally, and of Paul Castaway, a diagnosed schizophrenic who was holding a knife to his own throat with both hands when Denver police shot and killed him.
As I passed the bag around, and the students drew their names, I invited them to begin their research, to spend class time reflecting and writing, and, eventually, to begin sharing drafts and ideas with their classmates. We had been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me in class, a memoir and meditation on racial injustice in the form of a letter to the author’s son, so the epistolary form was already on their minds. When I asked them to write their assignment in the form of a letter to the person on their slip of paper, the students got it. None of them questioned the idea of writing to someone who could never read their letter. Some of them did lobby me to switch; I told them anyone could write an additional letter to anyone they wanted, whether another victim or someone else entirely. But each student had to, at a minimum, write a letter to the person they drew. They did, and many found either the license, or a nudge, to explore a person and story outside of their identity-based comfort zone. Once the first round of letters was drafted, I soon had additional letters to parents, siblings, to the city of Baltimore, to two police officers killed in New York City in apparent retaliation, to Dylann Roof, the White supremacist mass shooter responsible for the South Carolina church shooting.
Two weeks later, I asked them to bring drafts to share in workshop groups, which I assigned based on their subjects—or so I told them; I just wanted them to work together across racial lines. Reluctantly in some cases, they handed over their draft letters. Many had written about themselves, whether it was a Black male student sharing his own experience of police harassment, or a White student writing to Tamir Rice that she cried for him when she realized her niece was the exact same age, but would never have to fear dying the way he did. Soon, every student was talking. And they were talking to each other. I could have walked out of the room, and all the conversations would have continued for the remaining two hours of class. They might not have noticed my absence. And I couldn’t have been happier about that.
I’d love to say that, when I came up with that exercise, I knew all the pedagogical research on letter-writing as a tool of inquiry and instruction, but I didn’t. Historically, letters were the domain of literature scholars delving into the correspondences of authors, such as Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, or of anthropologists writing their mentors or colleagues from the field, a la Margaret Meade (Scheld). The Covid-19 shutdowns and resurgence of high-profile police brutality in 2020 prompted a newfound interest in letter-writing as a tool for contemplation and sharing of race and identity. That was five years after my classroom dilemma. Though the circumstances were different, I’m struck at how letters often occur to us writers and scholars as a response to crisis, or to a need to connect with others across great geographical or psychic distance.
The events of 2020 spurred a movement of letter-writing enabled by the intimacy and vulnerability of written correspondence as dialogue. Two separate pairs of education scholars, Bell and Zaino, as well as Travis and Hood, each began letter-writing exchanges in 2020, in the early days of pandemic travel and gathering restrictions, in lieu of disrupted face-to-face research plans. Both noted the social unrest related to the summer of 2020’s racial reckoning after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, influenced their desire to share perspectives and emotions on issues of race, social justice, and identity. Similarly, Ohito and LeGarry wrote and published their paper on anti-racist pedagogy in “a time of uncertainty,” in the form of letters written to each other.
The modern epistolary form, particularly in an age where traditional letter-writing has been eclipsed by online forms of communication, is often overlooked as a tool of critical inquiry (Bell and Zaino). The act of writing personal letters about racial and other intersectional identities is a process of “co-excavation,” Bell and Zaino maintain, defined as a “practice that entails making oneself vulnerable with the collaborator(s) in an attempt to develop trust and build community. Co-excavating lived experiences—particularly in experience to intersectional identities—creates space for making meaning of and addressing contemporary inequities” (312). Similarly, Travis and Hood, art education scholars, documented their exchanges with handwritten letters as a “critical reflective practice.” They noted that while the early-pandemic shutdowns drove many to solitary pursuits, ranging from baking to gardening to journaling, they chose letter-writing because it was, in essence, not solitary. Letter-writing, “while usually done in solitude, is inherently dialogic” (3).
If I was unfamiliar with these approaches to letter-writing, I had been attuned to the “storying” of lived experience, as described by bell hooks. “When our lived experience of theorizing is fundamentally linked to processes of self-recovery, of collective liberation, no gap exists between theory and practice.” A body of pedagogical scholarship on the power of personal narrative and storytelling has grown in the 21st century. These approaches have not uncoincidentally reflected the growing consciousness of social justice and equity within and outside of the classroom (Deniston-Trochta; Green; O' Toole; Robillard). These papers argue for the privileging of personal narrative and storytelling—not simply as a warm-up or accessory to “real” pedagogy and scholarship, but as core elements of both.
Granted, literary nonfiction and its sibling field to which I belong, journalism, have always prized personal narratives. In the former, they have been grouped under memoir, and in journalism they often are what categorizes stories as “literary journalism” or “narrative journalism.” Of late, both journalism and creative writing have undergone a reexamination of the “traditional” or “objective” ways of learning the crafts. Both the “standard” canon of writers students should study and emulate, as well as the ways in which writers subject their work to peer evaluation have come under scrutiny. Felicia Rose Chavez’s The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Writing Classroom and Matthew Salesses’s Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping, among others, have challenged these practices for their exclusion of historically oppressed identities, voices, and modes of expression.
Even when student work bends toward memoir and first-person narratives, the traditional pedagogical spaces in which those subgenres are taught still require a certain detachment from the student writer. These can manifest as the workshop “cone of silence,” the assigning of mostly White and cisgender-heterosexual male as exemplar readings, or the insistence on what Ann E. Green dubs the “professional middle-class” voice as the “standard” writing voice. In journalism, we take it one step further. Traditional journalism writing instruction all but prohibits the use of the word “I” in most coursework, particularly at introductory level. The “inverted pyramid” hard-news story—a story structure used for mostly breaking-news stories that requires the most important information be presented first, always in third person, and then sequenced in descending order of importance—is considered the foundation from which all students must learn. Some students may carefully adopt a first-person perspective in specialized courses like opinion writing or literary journalism, but are generally discouraged from making journalistic storytelling “all about them.” I had emphasized the research my students were to do to quell any potential critiques from my department or discipline that the assignment was not journalistic enough. Looking back, the fact that all this classroom experimentation occurred one year after I was tenured in my department is significant. I can’t imagine having done this pre-tenure, when I felt my teaching, and student evaluations, were under intense scrutiny, particularly as a woman of color in a PWI. I acknowledge that my pedagogical experimentation did come from a place of tenured privilege, something which is sadly becoming increasingly rare in academic departments increasingly dependent on contingent and adjunct faculty.
The research requirement became a writing prompt of sorts, where students who might have been shy about sharing personal stories or revelations with their classmates—particularly given the climate of the class at the start of the exercise—found unexpected footholds within their subject’s stories to springboard to their own lived experience. For Samantha, while researching Paul Castaway’s story, that springboard-turned-bridge was family mental illness. During the weeks of growing racial tension in the class, Samantha, a sharp and strong writer, had grown quiet and faded into the background. She became reanimated when she immersed herself in the story of the Oglala Lakota father of a toddler. As I watched her work on the story, I looked up more about Paul’s story and killing online. I did this with many of the students’ projects—watching them become engaged made me want to know more, to anticipate what they might choose to write about, what might resonate with them and their own experiences, or rock their worlds for being so far removed from them. My parallel research allowed me to suggest particular avenues or sources as they revised their letters.
Paul Castaway’s story was most often told by his mother, Lynn, in news media accounts. It was she who called the police to the Denver mobile home park, where she was watching her grandchildren. Lynn knew her son struggled with alcoholism and schizophrenia, and often watched his son. I also learned, with greater effort, through social media posts and Native media—since mainstream news media accounts don’t say much about him other than to name his illnesses and history with law enforcement—that Paul had studied criminal justice and had suffered from traumatic brain injuries to which Lynn attributed his struggles. He loved to cook, play chess, and follow the Denver Broncos. He loved his son Emanuel and his mother, to whom he gave many gifts, including a silver ring with the word “MOM” engraved in it. Lynn’s nickname for him was “my Cub.”
His last words, directed at the officers who had chased him as he ran down a dead end in the mobile home park, knife at his own throat, were documented by Samantha in her letter: “What’s wrong with you guys?” She answered his question in her letter.
“Much is wrong,” she wrote, and detailed his life and death, particularly the events that occurred after Lynn called police for help as her son was having a schizophrenic episode. Samantha’s letter continues:
I met Lynn Eagle Feather at an event in Denver on Indigenous People’s Day, which happened to fall that year on what would have been her son’s birthday. After I had shared with her that Paul had been the subject of Samantha’s letter, she seemed heartened that the students had shared their work publicly. They created a self-published book from their collected letters. They also had given a public presentation, I explained, one attended by the top leadership of the university—but my words felt hollow as she took this in.
“I don’t want people to forget him,” she said. “Not a single charge was filed against the officers.”
In the days following my chance meeting with Lynn, I scrambled to find an extra copy of the book to give to her. I scanned pages from my one copy, making sure to include the student-written Introduction, a copy of the table of contents with twenty-some names, including Paul’s, and Samantha’s letter. As I sent them to Lynn’s email address, I envisioned what could happen next with my most idealistic educator’s imagination. Sometimes, we can’t help ourselves.
I’d reach out to Samantha, who was now thirty, a staff writer at Maine Monitor who had joined as a Report for America corps member. She and Lynn could communicate. I hoped Lynn might find the other letters in the book a salve, a reassurance that her pain was part of a larger struggle. Samantha would have the opportunity to hear and learn directly about Paul from Lynn, a profound reminder of the human reach of her writing.
But I was naïve about the nature of long-held grief—of the gulf between the two Lynn Eagle Feathers. There was the Lynn who showed up on Indigenous People’s Day with buttons and flyers about her son’s unjust killing, and her fight for police reform. And there was Lynn the private person haunted by loss and the absence of police accountability. “Not a single charge filed,” she had said to me more than once during our conversation. She told me she was now raising Paul’s son, Emmanuel, now ten, after Emanuel’s mother died more recently.
The more time passed after my emailed scans to Lynn, the more I realized it was unlikely she’d have the bandwidth to correspond with Samantha, or even to engage with the materials I had emailed. I felt embarrassed for conjuring up a Pollyanna-esque idea of what my student project would mean in the larger realm of Lynn’s grief and concerns.
I still don’t know if Lynn read the scans I sent her. I found another copy of the book, but hesitated to send it to her in case it was more than she had wanted to take in. I didn’t reach out to Samantha, not wanting to disappoint her if she asked, “What did Lynn say after she read my letter?” But the chance meeting stood as a tangible reminder of the human-sized unit of measure, which, contrary to my former editors’ characterizations, was anything but small. The human-sized story was supposed to make complex and systemic problems comprehensible. But I couldn’t think of anything more complex and systemic than the bottomless well of Lynn’s grief, and the generational traumas in which she, her son, and grandson were steeped.
At times I wondered what the point of the letter writing had been in the face of this enormity. Was it the meaningful gesture I had wanted it to be—to Lynn, to Paul’s memory, to any of the other dead letter recipients and their surviving loved ones—or was it a rarefied puff piece in the face of their real losses? Teachers and writers of nonfiction must contend with the often-complicated weight of conveying other people’s stories, often without their knowledge or direct consent. We teach our students that their writing can change their readers’ minds, which in turn can change the world in some small way. But it’s rarer to consider whether and how the writing can change an individual subject’s lived experience; often when we do, we do so in the context of writing about those close to us and how they might respond badly or well to the way they are portrayed. But what about those we might not ever meet? Or might only meet fleetingly?
One of Travis & Hood’s observations felt suddenly profound. Letter-writing occurs is solitude, but is by its nature dialogic, they write: “Even a letter that is never sent or received implies a conversation with another” (3). The students wrote—and interacted with each other—differently when they were writing to someone, rather than just writing. Any writer who has re-read a draft after submitting it to a reader, and instantaneously spotted a plethora of errors or awkward phrasings that hadn’t been there when the piece didn’t have an audience, so to speak, knows the difference.
My meeting with Lynn was a real-life manifestation of what had already occurred for Samantha—she had been in deep conversation with another’s life and story, and in them she had found resonance with her own lived experience. The impact of this dialogue on Lynn did not have to be as direct as I had envisioned; I was very unlikely to meet any other loved ones of subjects in my other students’ letters. But the impact of the larger conversation, of students with each other—and with all those colleagues, supervisors, community members each of them might touch in their long careers and lives—might carry a thread of the understanding they gained in the writing.
In researching this article, I learned that Samantha had won the 2021 Maine Journalist of the Year Award for a yearlong investigation into systemic failures in legal representation for poor people charged with crimes. And I felt proud and heartened that she had channeled her outrage at the inequities of law enforcement and the justice system into this work. Then, I reached out to Samantha pre-publication. She reminded me that, prior to moving to Maine, she had done follow-up reporting on The Washington Post’s Pulitzer-winning Fatal Force project, a database of all deadly on-duty police shootings in the United States, as a graduate student at American. “The sad part is,” she said, “all of these shootings start to melt together in my memory.”
All of us, journalists, writers, society alike, have experienced that melting. Well, all of us except for the loved ones of victims, like Lynn. The students whom she had workshopped her letter drafts with had joined that conversation as well. I had worried that the letter to Paul in theory was meaningless in the face of Lynn’s lived experience. But had I been paying attention to what Lynn had said to me, instead of worrying about upsetting her, I would have given more weight to her gratitude. “Thank you for helping remember him,” she had said. The remembering mattered; he had not been forgotten. Moreover, had I been paying attention to bell hooks, I would have already known that the students’ unmistakable desire to connect with their letter subjects, and to name the societal injustices that had led to their deaths--Much is wrong--meant that they had already closed the gap between theory and lived experience.
Angie Chuang is an associate professor of journalism at University of Colorado Boulder, and has been published in both scholarly and literary venues as a scholar and writer. Her debut memoir, The Four Words for Home (Aquarius Press/Willow Books 2014), won an Independent Publishers Award for multicultural nonfiction. Angie’s research and writing has appeared in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly; Communication, Culture and Critique; The Washington Post, Creative Nonfiction, The Asian American Literary Review, and others. Prior to CU Boulder, she was on the journalism faculty of American University, and prior to that she was a staff writer for The Oregonian, Hartford Courant, and the Los Angeles Times.