The moment I found out about the verdict, the room changed. Temperature, shade, atmosphere. There was a shift in the world and nothing would ever be the same. Except, everything was the same; it was business as usual for the justice system, the mainstream culture and those who defend the status quo. I could remember one other time in my life when a similar sensation occurred. It was the birth of my son. That day, the sun formed a beautiful glow of orange through the window I’ve never seen before or since. The world looked different to me, because I was different in the world. I would never equate the two incidences, but I imagine for Sybrina Fulton and other mothers of black or brown boys, a similar phenomenon took place.
Yet I should know better. I’m an activist, a journalist and during my relatively short time living in this country, I’ve been a witness to the ways me and my other non-white counterparts were stripped of our humanity, reduced to a stereotype and treated appropriate to that. I live in a neighbourhood that’s a poster child for personal accounts of racial profiling in Stop and Frisk.
The hope I harbored for a guilty verdict went against my better judgment and experience, and reflected a dichotomy and conflict akin to the schizophrenia James Baldwin alluded to in “A Talk to Teachers.” On the one hand, I’m an immigrant who came to a country that boasted a freedom, an opportunity for change. On the other, my reality reveals for whom that freedom and opportunity exists and for whom it is just an illusion.
From start to finish, the George Zimmerman trial effectively portrays these two Americas. The racial dynamics and profiling in the George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin encounter, the eventual arrest of Zimmerman and the trial (from jury selection to the verdict) are undeniable. I’ve read accounts that tried to deny it, try to pick apart each piece of evidence, pitting the deceased and obvious victim in this case against his aggressor to the point where I had to make a conscious effort to say the Zimmerman trial rather than the Trayvon Martin trial. Martin’s character was on trial more so than Zimmerman’s. That he would dare defend himself against this man who effectively stalked and killed him was seen as a mistake by more than one commentator. That he “profiled” him as a “creepy ass cracker” was mentioned as a no-no by another. That he did anything else but feign subservience to this presumed white man was his fatal error.
Black and brown men and women are criminalized at higher rates than whites. There is a belief that runs through the country’s DNA of the inherent violence of especially black men. Why could Stand Your Ground or whatever self defense clause be invoked by Zimmerman, but not by Martin who was the actual victim? Why is Marissa Alexander who fired warning shots (yes, in front of her children, a fact that to me still doesn’t justify the endangerment argument especially since she was trying to protect them from an abusive husband) facing 20 years even though she didn’t harm anyone? Even though Zimmerman didn’t use Stand Your Ground in his final defense, the law became famous when the story became nationwide. A study of the law proves that it works most of the time particularly when the victim was black.
As for the only witness, Rachel Jeantel, her account was largely discounted because she was read as flippant, inconsistent and unintelligible. She was bullied on the stand by defense attorney Don West as she was made to recount one of the most tragic events of her life. Since Trayvon did not get a jury of his peers, but a mostly white, all women cast, there was no one to understand how her cultural and ethnic background would play into her testimony. That although she is a Black American, English is not her only language, that her Southern accent and her literacy difficulties were not an attestment to her intelligence and that her defiant attitude was not meant to be read as disrespectful. Along with her friend whom she knew since second grade, Jeantel was put on trial as much for her race as for her class. The cultural nuances in Jeantel’s speech and testimony were missed in a way that Jeantel addressed concisely, “the jury they old school, we in a new school.”
If Martin’s fate is one I wish most for all little black boys to escape, Jeantel’s character is the one I hope they aspire to. Living in a country where how you wear your hair, your weight, your accent all have political consequences, she dared to be herself, in spite of it all. Her inconsistencies are emblematic of the friction caused when the person she is rubs up against the person she would have to be if only to avoid the stereotype and the consequences they come with.
And where do I see raising a little black boy in the midst of all of this? I know well that his little toddler smiles and sudden vocal bursts of excitement will one day give way to the less cute. I know one day, his ruggish forms of self expressions may be misread by the world outside our home. How do I strike a balance of facilitating his boy to man growth, the awkward, the physical explorations, the testing of authority (one day me, next time cops) that his white friends are freely allowed? How can I limit his personal freedom knowing that it may save him or at least prepare him for the political consequences?
These are the questions I grapple with even as I enjoy watching his first steps. That hope and despair, my son’s birth and a verdict that rendered a black boy’s life invaluable can cause similar shifts in the world is a by-product of the two Americas I embody. I say me, because my hope is that I find a way to effectively abolish the one we’re meant to assume, so that my son may only know one. That the knowledge I impart to him be not of hiding the realities, but teaching him that he creates his own reality. That, like my own dear teacher Mr. Baldwin:
“I would try to make each child know that these things are the result of a criminal conspiracy to destroy him. I would teach him that if he intends to get to be a man, he must at once decide that his is stronger than this conspiracy and they he must never make his peace with it.”
May the world be ready for a black boy, a black girl, a black man and a black woman who are truly himself and herself. And may the senseless deaths of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham and countless other black boys and men who died for the crime of being black in America, serve to remind us the end result of equating color with criminality. May our black sons and daughters grow to create a world that is wholly their own.