I had to be honest with myself over the last few days about why I have been silent about what I consider to be the epitome of one of the greatest travesties of justice that I have seen in the recent years.
I heard about Trayvon Martin’s death about a week after it happened and I saw a few people tweet about it. I read the circumstances and shook my head and refused to read more about it. It hit home for me. It hit too close to home to be quite honest. The next couple of days I did my tweets to Rev. Al Sharpton in hopes that the story would gain national attention, and thankfully, I wasn’t the only one that felt the same way. About two weeks after his death, the name Trayvon Martin was seen all over Twitter and various bloggers, essayists and journalists had weighed in on the topic.
Yet, I stayed silent.
I wrote a small piece over at FWDNation but I generally spoke about the pornography of violence in our culture and the “violent normalcy of civilization” in a broad topic and used Trayvon Martin as a lens to discuss it. However, I never really fully engaged the issue, I remained silent on the blogging subject. Then one morning as I was getting ready for work the Today Show on NBC covered the story in it’s lead half-hour and that’s when I heard the 911 tapes. The rapport of the gunshot coming through the caller’s phone shook me to my core.
Still, I stayed silent.
I went on for a few days and I read articles concerning black male image in this country and the issue about how black men look and are perceived; from wearing hoodies to wearing business suits and what message are we sending and what message is being received in this country solely based on how we are dressed.
Then suddenly I was jerked to being 12 years old myself.
I remember my mother telling me the first time I rode the bus solo from a class I was taking downtown and back to school midday about how I appeared to everyone. She always told me that I looked older than what I was and that people were going to see me as being older. That was her way of trying to tell me that most everyone is going to see a young black male and a possible threat to their lives; that people were going to readily see me as a potential hoodlum ready to rob them or terrorize them. That was her way of saying that people paint young black males with a wide brush and that I need to be prepared for it.
I remember the first time I consciously remember a white woman walking on a downtown street move her purse to the other side of her body because she was approaching me and move it back as soon as she had passed. I remember the first time entering an elevator and seeing a white woman clutch her purse tighter as I entered. I remember walking home from school when it was dark and seeing another neighborhood white girl see me coming and begin to run full tilt until she reached the house on the same block which I lived. These are all small memories, the ones in which we don’t talk about.
And yet I stayed silent about Trayvon.
The great equalizer surrounding Trayvon’s death that hit home for me was that essentially there wasn’t much preventing anyone from having had stopped me on the street and question my whereabouts when I was 16 or 17 walking home in the dark from school. There’s nothing preventing the police from rolling on me just because I’m walking home in my own neighborhood from when I was 17 or to even my age right now. Growing up in the 90′s and and the very early 2000′s the black male image was acutely determined by how much of a “hyper-masculine thug” you looked like. This meant wearing oversized jeans, oversized shirts–and yes hoodies.
Even still, I remained silent concerning Trayvon.
Commentators from Rev. Al Sharpton to Melissa Harris-Perry began discussing the disparities of this “stand your ground” law which has allowed Trayvon’s killer George Zimmerman to maintain a self-defense argument. The commentary discussing why the use of “deadly force” as justifiable in self-defense almost defeats the point of the law in the first place. The questions finally gor raised about black male imagery in a public atmosphere. Does wearing a hoodie, carrying sweet tea and a bag of Skittles equate to suspicious behavior? Does it warrant a self-appointed neighborhood watchman to pursue a 17 year old while carrying a loaded gun?
The answer is of course no, but still I couldn’t bring myself to write about Trayvon.
Last Friday, a reporter asked Obama specifically about Trayvon Martin and more questions ensued and Obama, now famously, said “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” He went on to say “I think all of us have to do some soul-searching to figure out how does something like this happen,” and encouraged a full investigation on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice, headed by fellow black man, Eric Holder. Certainly, Obama invoked the specter of race in his comments nearly four years to the date when he gave his famous speech on race in Philadelphia prompted by his affiliation with Jeremiah Wright.
Again, I remained silent.
However, over the weekend as “hoodie Sunday” ensued in churches across this country with clergy proudly wearing hooded sweatshirts and black male ministers armed with Skittles and Arizona brand sweet tea proclaimed from the pulpits “Do I look suspicious?”; and Newt Gingrich, in the death throes of his campaign assailed Obama for playing the race card; as sentiments concerning the countless deaths of young black men at the hands of other young black men who remain nameless in the face of the now household name of Trayvon Martin…
….I decided to say something.
There is a parable in the Markan account of the Jesus narrative in the canonized New Testament that speaks about tenant farmers who rebel against the landowner by killing his son in revenge. Essentially, these are sharecroppers who band together and stage a revolt against the landowners, probably mad about their economic plight, unhappy about their living conditions and are well aware that there is absolutely nothing they can do to be upwardly mobile. The only thing they did to be in that situation is to have been born in that caste. Moreover, some were probably aware that the landowners were in the back pocket of the Roman officials that had occupied the Roman controlled territory. That is to suggest, that their immediate enemy, the landowner, looked like them, but the reigning control had a different skin color and was of a different nationality.
When I had to preach this text, I realized that the tenants, the sharecroppers were protesting the economic injustices of the era. Protesting so much that they staged a revolt. But, I’m sure, like Nat Turner, they met their fate in rather unpleasant terms as the text implies. To that end, what happens? Nat Turner’s rebellion, or revolt, did nothing to end slavery. If nothing else, some say it lead to harsher treatment of slaves in that region, and things got worse before they got better. Turner is no more than a footnote in some history books and his full story is only known in very particular circles, namely within the black community.
So what about these tenants, these sharecroppers? My message to those tenants, and my message to those donning hoodies and armed with Skittles and cans of iced tea, is to make your revolution relevant.
There’s a decided difference between a revolt and a revolution. A revolt is marked by a direct response to a direct issue. Revolts can be when when union workers stage a work stoppage for better pay or better work conditions. Or the violent revolts that happen when military coups overthrow dictatorships or the like. A revolution, on the other hand, is usually the elongated fights and protests that happen in many different areas over the course of a time span that result in a change in the meta-narrative. Revolutions are characterised by a movement. The French Revolution, as we know it, was the result of the forward progress over years. The modern Civil Rights movement, as we know it, was the result of calculated events that took place ever since enslaved Africans landed on the shores of North America and realized their status as humans had been revoked by the ruling class.
Those who revolt in the name of a direct issue and fail to focus on the larger issues at play, sadly are not making the revolution relevant. What my fellow white conservative brothers and sisters are failing to do is to realize the racial implications of all of this. Freelance journalist Reniqua Allen put it this way in a Washington Post article:
Obama’s measured words on [last] Friday only highlighted how removed the president seems from the candidate who gave that stirring speech on race four years ago. Obama was asked directly about “allegations of lingering racism in our society,” but he shied away. He rightly used caution in talking about a case that the Justice Department is investigating, and he offered a moving sentiment for Martin’s parents, saying, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” But he hasn’t grappled with this tragedy, or with racial disparities and divisions, along with us, guiding us in a way that only he can — as the commander-in-chief, as a lawyer, as a community leader and as a black man.
The Obama presidency is “post-racial” only in the sense that it gives us an excuse not to grapple with race anymore.
While our conservative cohorts are quick to claim a post-racial America, fact of the matter is that if Barack and Michelle had a son and he was still just Senator Obama who lived in the neighborhood where I grew up and walked the same streets where I grew up, he very well could be stopped and harassed by police. Or other random white citizens. Lest Chicago Southsiders forget the story of Lenard Clark who suffered irreparable brain damage after white citizens decided he didn’t belong in their neighborhood. Sound familiar? And no, this didn’t happen in the 1960s, this was in 1997.
What is problematic for me is that we live in a country where we operate from sound bytes and we fail to ever have the conversation about the nuances of the major issues that affect our everyday lives. Trayvon Martin’s death is a clear enough cut case that can be summed up in three sentences–a soundbite. Whereas the issue of black on black crimes in the inner cities of our country cannot and shouldnot be summed up so concisely. Therefore, to protest or to march on those issues isn’t quite as easy. While some might argue if we got as angry over Trayvon’s death as we do over our sons and daughters shot intentionally and randomly then it we wouldn’t be burying them senselessly every week.
The frequency of black on black murder makes us inured to it’s occurences. Especially when so many of us who have the means of which to blog, to comment, to be journalists and to have this conversation live well outside of the neighborhoods where violence is so commonplace, we comment from our ivory towers and our obvious place of privilege. We sit and try and make sense of deadly occurrences when we see black and brown faces as both perpetrator and victim. We try and figure out what it is we are supposed to do; what are we supposed to be angry about and what can be done about this!
That is to suggest, that when we decided to protest, we have to be clear about what it is we are protesting against. Newt Gingrich calling the president’s comments “disgraceful” about Trayvon Martin and trying to steer the conversation toward why isn’t he concerned about the deaths of black males in the District are nothing more than mere distractions to the current issue at hand. The hoodies in Twitter avis and Facebook profile pictures represent the hundreds of “Trayvons” that have died senselessly at the hands of police and of other persons because they “looked suspicious.” The protest is to get the “stand your ground/make my day” law changed from allowing justifiable deadly force. The protest is directly so that if there is factual evidence to give George Zimmerman a day in court, that it will indeed happen.
These protests, this revolt, if you will, exists so that when the revolution happens, we will be able to say that it has relevancy in our lives. We must refrain from always focusing on staging one revolt to the next revolt; one protest to the next protest. We are required to frame these exercises of our freedoms and these fights for liberation in the context of a revolution. I couldn’t bring myself to write about Trayvon Martin until now, hence my silence, until I was clear what the fight was about. God forbid I jump on the bandwagon for a cause I know nothing about. Until now, my focus wasn’t clear, but now it it. Let us not be focused on the revolt, but let us focus on the revolution; and I dare say, make it relevant.
Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL