When Trayvon Martin was killed a year ago today, I almost immediately thought of my parents. I remembered my dad waking up at night when I came home late from a night out. He’d call out from bed, ask if I was okay.Sometimes he would get up to use the restroom, stopping long enough to have a brief conversation about what I had done with friends, where we went, how everyone I’d seen was doing. I remember my mother prepping me and my brother with advice deeply rooted in what I believed, at the time, to be hyperbole to an eye-rolling extreme. This advice may have included how to act if I were ever pulled over by police or being mindful of the fact that being alone with a white girl could be hazardous to a black boy’s health depending on the situation.
I thought of my parents, of their concern when me and my brother left their sight, because I knew that they spent their entire lives trying to guard us from exactly what happened to Trayvon. He was killed because he was a young black kid someone didn’t recognize and assumed the worst of. My parents, and in particular my dad, who spent much of his youth in segregated Alabama, understood the inherent danger to black males in America, one that goes beyond the things that every parent of every child worries about when their kids aren’t near. Some of these dangers are more apparent than others depending on a variety of factors. I know I was lucky enough to be spared the horrors many brothers face day in and day out due to where I grew up, who raised me, and how I was raised. My neighborhood was just a couple blocks away from one of the most crime-ridden and poverty-stricken places in America, but honestly I could have been 100 miles away from east Camden and a city that’s consistently ranked amongst the most dangerous in the country. Over half of homicide victims in the United States are black — despite African Americans making up just 13 percent of the U.S. population — and an overwhelming majority of black murder victims — roughly 85 percent — are black males, according to a Wall Street Journal article from last August.
I grew up knowing I never had to deal with that.
What my parents knew I couldn’t escape was the enduring prejudice, fear, and animous that spurred Trayvon’s death. In the weeks that followed his murder at the hands of, at best, an overzealous neighbor, or at worst, a racist vigilante, there was a lot of talk about what Trayvon Martin should or shouldn’t have been doing, or what he should or shouldn’t have been wearing, or what he should or shouldn’t said to the random stranger who started following him as he walked home from the store. All of that talk about Trayvon’s behavior, this assumption that a 17-year-old boy had a statutory duty to make his neighbors feel comfortable with his presence despite doing nothing more than mind his own business, reminded me of what my parents and a lot of parents of black boys try to prepare their sons for as they ready to strike out on their own. I don’t know if Trayvon could have dressed differently or walked differently or spoke to George Zimmerman differently and it make a difference in the ultimate outcome of the situation. But I know a lot of black people who didn’t find it shocking that folks like Geraldo Rivera and others said that a number of seemingly inconsequential variables could have spared Trayvon, and that it had been incumbent upon the young man to control those variables.
Few people understand “code” or “signifiers” the way black folks do. “We wear the mask that grins and lies,” poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote over a century ago, touching on a salient feature of black American life since slavery: Self-preservation has often been dictated by what the dominant culture (white American culture) wants us to be or feels comfortable with us being. And, of course, what’s most comforting to any group of people is what it knows best. Hence, the least threatening black people likely are ones who most mirror white Americans, be that mirroring speech, appearance (hair weaves, straightened hair), education, dress, etc. Trayvon was “code” for “trouble” to George Zimmerman. Start with being young and black. Add on to that an archetype — “thug wear” as Geraldo Rivera called it — and Zimmerman doesn’t need much more evidence in his mind.
Young. Black. Hoodie. Random characteristics leading to one conclusion: The Boogeyman is in my neighborhood, and I have to stop him.
My parents knew that could be my fate too. Heck, at 37 I sometimes wonder if that could still be my fate, that despite being a college educated professional with an advanced degree, some trigger-happy cop or yellow-bellied, easily-threatened and unconciously-racist average citizen might misread “The Matrix” and view me as someone who could do them harm — all while I’m minding my own business.
Sadly, that enduring fear leads to the often exhausting excercise of putting people at ease.
I smile. A lot. Not in a Stepin Fetchit kind of a way, but in a seriously-I’m-a-nice-guy kind of way. I’m (overly) conscious of what a white person, especially a white woman, might be thinking when they step on an elevator alone with me. I shouldn’t care if he or she feels uncomfortable. But I do. In stores, it’s a major annoyance to be sweated by salespeople, so I actually avoid shopping. Or when I’m asked if I need any help, I answer with a pretty patronizing, “No, ma’am, but I’ll let you know if I do.”
I don’t do these things because I’m looking for acceptance. This isn’t is about people liking me. But I do feel like, as Dubar wrote, I must “wear the mask” for my own sanity at times. I just don’t want the hassle. I don’t want to hear it from folks who only deal in archetypes and stereotypes. I don’t want to have conversations I probably shouldn’t have to have or be talked to a way I shouldn’t be talked to as a grown man.
And I don’t want to be seen as a threat, a menace, a danger to your person, for being perceived that way could be a matter of life and death.
Earlier today, one of my students, came in. He’s a smart, handsome kid. Really gifted athlete who could serve as your prototype if you were asked to design an NFL linebacker. Kids on campus call him “Megatron” because, at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, he looks like a machine.
He was wearing a hoodie. I was in the middle of writing this.
I know there are plenty of people who see him the way I do: a bright, charming black kid who is making the most of an opportunity at one of the best universities in the world. But I couldn’t help but think of the folks who wouldn’t be able to give him that much credit, unable to see that he’s much more than a hooded Boogeyman.
My student deserves that. So did Trayvon.