When Professor Clarence Nero and his teaching colleagues walked into their classrooms for the first time after the tumultuous summer of 2016—a summer that in Baton Rouge had seen the murders of Alton Sterling and innocent police officers as well as a vast and historic flood—they had no idea what to expect from students. This wasn’t any ordinary semester at Baton Rouge Community College. Many enrolled students had lost their homes due to flooding; most were still reeling from the shootings and the subsequent protests and riots that rocked the capital city. There were students who had been traumatized in ways that defied simple explanations.
Not only did Professor Nero understand that they were pain—he had lived with and through the same hellish nightmare that summer—he determined to let them give expression to their experiences and reactions. Having seen this type of racial tension fuel students’ creativity in the film Freedom Writers, based on actual classroom experiences of Erin Gruwell, Professor Nero showed the movie to students in his English classes. The result was an instant connection: the diverse women and men he was teaching identified with the students in Ms. Gruwell’s class who had shared stories of frustration and pain growing up in racially hostile, violent communities in South Central Los Angeles.
Before long, students in Professor Nero’s classes were sharing their own stories, too, writing narratives and engaging in intense conversations in the classroom around race in south Louisiana. The idea caught on like wildfire around the college; other professors similarly challenged their students, and the school’s Creative Writing Club members likewise joined in the effort. Students who had begun the semester in varying states of distress were writing powerful and unforgettable accounts of their shared experiences coming of age in the South. Thus, Voices from the Bayou was born: a collection of heartwarming and heartbreaking narratives told by college students who bravely put it all on the line during a time when our country is most divided, after a contentious presidential election. Their courageous stories of dealing with racism, the police, and the flood in Baton Rouge will leave an indelible impression, reminding readers that our young people are ever watching and their voices must be heard and studied for peace and humanity’s survival.