I have a younger brother. He’s now 21, but at one point he was 17, and wore hoodies, and snacked on Skittles just like Trayvon Martin. Being an older sibling is a very special role in one’s life. I constantly “meddle” in my brother’s affairs, wondering who he is dating, what classes he’s taking, who he is hanging out with. And then there’s the fear and worry that sometimes grips me when I’m faced with harder realities of places my role cannot help, things beyond my control as an older sibling. The fear that leads me to warn in a rushed voice that he must always be wary, always watchful and mindful because there were those who had the world in the palms of their hand and he could so easily lose everything..and sometimes that could be his life.
My brother and I overlapped one year in high school, my senior year his introduction to high school. It was during that year that things began to become more apparent and real to me the perilous roads in life he would have to traverse. Incidents occurred that had me try and assert my my older sibling ways, trying to protect and shelter, while making sense of situations that made little to none at all. I hate to throw out the sentiment that it’s “unfair,” but sometimes that is all I can think when who you are isolates you and makes you a “threat” wherever you go. It’s like Brent Staples states in his essay on black men and public space, that he with his mere presence had the ability to alter public spaces in ugly ways. Trayvon Martin apparently created such perverse ugliness on a sidewalk that February evening…so much so that the person his presence so angered took his life. George Zimmerman’s not guilty sentencing hurts my very soul because it flashes me back several years, first though being how easily Trayvon Martin could have been my younger brother.
Survival? What will it take in this type of environment? Earlier in the year I read with my students an article entitled “Trayvon Martin, My Son, and the Black Male Code.” My students really identified with the author’s words:
As I explained it, the Code goes like this:
Always pay close attention to your surroundings, son, especially if you are in an affluent neighborhood where black folks are few. Understand that even though you are not a criminal, some people might assume you are, especially if you are wearing certain clothes.
Never argue with police, but protect your dignity and take pride in humility. When confronted by someone with a badge or a gun, do not flee, fight, or put your hands anywhere other than up.
Please don’t assume, son, that all white people view you as a threat. America is better than that. Suspicion and bitterness can imprison you. But as a black male, you must go above and beyond to show strangers what type of person you really are.
Some people have to prove who they are. It’s not enough that you put your clothes on and go about your business, but you have to go one step further in making sure that you do not appear as a threat to others, who in fact, are the threat to you. That’s the paradox–the real threat comes from those around our young black men, who profile them around each corner they come around.
“America the beautiful. Who are you beautiful for?” Jonathan Kozol once etched in one of his books on racial inequality in American schools. It’s times like this the question creeps into the forefront of my mind. There is no ‘post-racial’ America. We can’t feed ourselves the lie that because someone who looks like Trayvon Martin is in the White House that suddenly all things are fair. So then how do we survive in a place we were not meant to survive? How then do we prosper when laws are made that are not supposed to protect all of us? A friend posted about how she doesn’t know how our ancestors did it–watch beatings and profiling and discrimination and yet get no trials. How did they continue to believe in a better America? And how do we continue to believe in that dream on days like this? I would tell her that it is because we continue to choose this as our home, and the place we have worked unacknowledged to build it and help make it what it is today. As long as there are people striving toward the small victories that continue to reshape and remake America, there’s enough to believe in. We have to. We ALL have to.
Because the truth is, this happens every day. We just care about it once in awhile when it make the headlines.
So what then do I say to
And all the other beautiful souls of young black men I have had the honor to teach or mentor throughout the years? Because I can see their accusatory eyes turning to me, stabbing at my heart with silent cries of how I told them if they worked hard and focused on their education that they would be successful and prosper…and survive. I don’t want to John Henry them–a case of someone telling you that whatever you want in life is yours no matter your place in life or race, etc. and then when they hit their first obstacle, they fall apart because no one warned them of the Zimmermans of the world.
So I’d tell them that yes, I told you that, but that’s why I’m also compelled to tell you this is why you must do all that you can with every blessed minute and hour and day that you have because for you, no matter how brilliant and talented and promising you are, someone can take it away from you at any given moment…any February evening while you’re walking in your hoodie and holding a bag of Skittles. For you who knows that each day is a gift, you are Trayvon Martins memorial, because you have another day. Hold on to that.