Thoreau Themes explored in Today’s Ferguson Tragedy

Thoreau in Ferguson

Henry David Thoreau is mostly known to American readers as the philosopher who spent a year living in a shack by the Walden Pond, freely enjoying the solitude from people, and the company of trees and the sky. Due to his time at Walden Pond, Thoreau may not be often seen as a man of action, but of contemplation. However one of his most well-known quotes provides strong insight into the progressive nature of this transcendentalist philosopher. “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer” tells us that the call to action was as strong of an impulse within Thoreau, as was the impulse to listen to nature. In The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail Thoreau emerges as a man of action and conviction when he takes a stand against paying taxes to benefit the war with Mexico.

In the play Thoreau takes another strong action, when he allows a runaway slave, Henry Williams to rest at Walden Pond on his way to freedom in Canada. Thoreau treats Williams as himself, a free man. He helps the terrified fugitive by feeding him, clothing him, and by providing moral support and respect to a man who had never before been spoken to like a human being. More importantly, he tries to impress upon his intellectual idol, Ralph Waldo Emerson that he should use the stature gained in academe in order to support the anti-slavery cause.  He accuses his philosophical elder of inaction and acquiescence against the Fugitive Slave Laws.

In scenes where Thoreau intellectually spars about issues dearest to him, we see this man of action try to convince Waldo that the life of one slave should be a cause to rise against inhumane property laws. Similarly, in times when the United States of America has moved past the horrors of slavery, the nation experiences currents of a different kind of violence against black people in numbers that stagger entire cities and states. The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked social outrage while unearthing abuses of power in the municipal court, local police department, and local government of that town.

The recent Department of Justice Report regarding Ferguson confirmed the institutionalized abuses of power where black individuals are treated as potential offenders and sources of revenue for the municipality. This situation has led to countless arrests where video footage from squad cars points towards police brutality and excess use of power. In the November 2014 editorial in The New York Times, the Editorial Board quotes Officer Wilson’s grand jury testimony in which he describes Brown “as a soulless behemoth who was “almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him.” Comparisons emerge between Michael Brown of Ferguson, and Henry Williams, the fugitive slave in the play, where both men are seen as an elemental force which must be dealt with by a major policing force.

Thoreau calls us to let our fellow man “step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away” which he himself exemplified by listening to the beat of his own conscience. Thoreau refused to pay taxes that supported a slavery-driven economy and government, and was jailed for that civil disobedience. He resolved to continue his fight against violence and injustice by leaving the microcosm of Walden Pond and reentering into the society which he could directly influence with his philosophy, activism, and friendship. One of the best lessons we can take away from Thoreau’s night of the soul is that to help others be free, we must not just stand against violent actions of institutions and governments, but even more so befriend and support the individuals who are suffering right here and now because of their differences, not the least of which is the color of their skin, gender, or sexual orientation.

Monika Browne


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