Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Naomi Shihab Nye: On growing up in Ferguson and Palestine

I grew up in Ferguson, Mo.  No one ever heard of it, unless you lived elsewhere in St. Louis County.

Then my family moved to Palestine – my father’s first home. A friend says, “Your parents really picked the garden spots.”

In Ferguson, an invisible line separated white and black communities. In Jerusalem, a no-man’s land separated people, designated by barbed wire.

* * *

My father and his family became refugees in 1948, when the state of Israel was created. They lost everything but their lives and memories. Disenfranchised Palestinians ended up in refugee camps or scattered around the world. My dad found himself in Kansas, then moved to Missouri with his American bride. He seemed a little shell-shocked when I was a child.

Ferguson was a leafy green historic suburb with a gracious red brick elementary school called Central. I loved that school, attending kindergarten through sixth grade there. All my classmates were white, of various derivations – Italians, French-Canadians, etc. My father was the only Arab in Ferguson. But he ran for the school board and won. 

At 12, I took a berry-picking job on “Missouri’s oldest organic farm” in Ferguson. I wanted the job because I had noticed that the other berry-pickers were all black boys. I’d always been curious about the kids living right down the road whom we hardly ever got to see.

We had contests to see who could pick the most in the searing humidity. I had obliterated Ferguson’s “line.” I felt a secret pride….[continue reading]

— by Naomi Shihab Nye writing for The Washington Post

Naomi Shihab Nye

Naomi Shihab Nye is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

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