Son, You Could Be Trayvon

I’m furious that Trayvon Martin is getting blamed for his own murder. If smoking pot in high school were an executable offense, as the Miami Herald seems to suggest, we would cut the U.S. population by about a third. Add tardiness to the list—again, as the Miami Herald seems to be doing—and I believe we could eliminate Social Security entirely. 

How was a young man shot and killed and the man who did it still hasn’t been arrested or charged? Does anyone believe for a minute that if things were reversed—if Trayvon Martin had shot George Zimmerman—that Martin would be walking around free? (By the way, don’t miss Charles Blow grilling Joe Oliver, George Zimmerman’s acquaintance, on MSNBC; he starts about 8:33 minutes in.) Why, with someone dead, with the evidence of Zimmerman’s past vigilantism and domestic-violence charges and arrests and anger-management courses, with those horrifying 911 tapes, and all the rest, why is the man still walking around free? 

Look, Zimmerman may not be guilty of murder. He might indeed have shot his gun in self-defense. It’s horrifying that he’s being tried in the media. So let him be charged and tried in a court of law, with both sides’ evidence marshaled and presented for 12 people to review. Why isn’t that being done?

More personally, I’ve been puzzling over why I can’t get over Martin’s death. Two weeks after I first heard the story, I am still looking at pictures of that child’s face, ready to burst out crying. I see black kids walking up our street or shooting basketballs on the playground, and I want to run over and protect them. (Don’t worry, I know how they’d react to the crazy white lady barreling at them—I do have some restraint.) My own little guy has been subjected to many more hugs and kisses than usual, which can make an eight-year-old very impatient. And despite deadlines, I’ve been taking afternoon breaks to build three-story Lego extravaganzas with him. (Please don’t tell my editors! I make up for it by working after dinner, like every other working parent! #flextime)

Yes, all this is ludicrously sentimental. Yes, I know I’m over-identifying. And yes, I know that this murder is not about my family. Precisely because I don’t want to exaggerate my importance, before I examine my own emotions any further, I’m going to point outward to some of what I’ve been reading. 

ColorLines is inviting black men to submit their own “I could be Trayvon” stories to this Tumblr. It’s disturbing and powerful, illustrating the strain so many black boys and men live under. Take this entry, for instance: 

9 years old (1991)—I’m at a friend’s birthday and slumber party.  My friends and I decide to take our toy guns outside and run around the neighborhood playing tag/shoot ‘em up.  We have a plastic, bright orange squirt gun that looks like a large 9mm, and a replica Civil War era rifle.  It is early evening and dark.  A neighbor sees us running around and calls the police.  The police come and find us playing tag, with our toy guns, in a nearby Seattle park.  The police yell at us to freeze with their real guns drawn.  They point their guns directly at another friend who has the squirt gun.  He cries from fear.  Eventually, the “misunderstanding” is sorted out with the help of some of our parents.  The police leave.

…Although I’ve been lucky enough to live to see my thirties and remain free of incarceration, the emotional scars are still there.

Charles Blow is doing his best to humanize Trayvon Martin, working to dismantle the stereotypical and monolothic image of the dangerous young black man and to remind us all that we’re talking about a person. He compares  his interviews with the slain teen’s mother and grandmother against George Zimmerman’s version of what happened: 

[According to his mother and grandmother, Trayvon] was a hard worker who earned extra money by painting houses, and washing cars and working in the concession of the Pee Wee football league on the weekends. He also baby-sat for his younger cousins, two adorable little girls ages 3 and 7, whom the family called the bunnies, and when he watched the girls he baked them cookies.

The only fight his mother could ever recall his having was with his own brother when Trayvon was about 4 and the brother was 8. They were fighting for her attention, and it wasn’t even a real fight. “They were wrestling. It was so funny,” she said with a smile….

… To believe Zimmerman’s scenario, you have to believe that Trayvon, an unarmed boy, a boy so thin that people called him Slimm, a boy whose mother said that he had not had a fight since he was a preschooler, chose that night and that man to attack. You have to believe that Trayvon chose to attack a man who outweighed him by 100 pounds and who, according to the Sanford police, was wearing his gun in a holster. You have to believe that Trayvon chose to attack even though he was less than a hundred yards from the safety of the home where he was staying.

Michelle Goldberg has a sharp analysis of how much this case’s victim-blaming is reminiscent of similar attitudes in rape cases. She says that while some conservatives feel the need to deny that racism still exists in the U.S.,

… if race has nothing to do with this case, then it makes no sense that Zimmerman was able to kill Martin without consequences—unless, of course, Martin did something to provoke him. If you don’t want to believe that racism is a problem in the United States, it helps to believe that Martin had it coming. Even if the only evidence is a school suspension, a tiny trace of pot, and the juvenile tweets of a kid trying to be cool.

But reading too much about this story—and stories like it—undoes me. For comfort, I turn repeatedly to a Pinterest board put together by Dori Maynard, “Neither Super-Predator nor Superhero,” which shows a wonderful range of faces of adult black men. I love looking at this. Maynard has also turned it into a Tumblr, so that you can add your own beloved or admired faces. As she describes it:

Somewhere between the inaccurate and distorted media images of the black male super predator and the black male superhero, live the majority of black men. They are fathers, brothers, doctors, bloggers, editors, school teachers, accountants and more. Please join us in creating a powerful visual that will remind the world of the countless African American boys and men who are working to make this world a better place. Submit pictures and a brief description of the boys, men and male-identified folks in your life.

If you’re still with me, please excuse me for continuing my self-examination: Why is my inner life so much less defended against this apparently racist crime than against crimes that could have hurt me, not my eight-year-old? 

Maybe it’s because I’ve had a lifetime to get used to how my own various identities are hated. Getting threatened as a dyke on the street or being told when I’m on the radio that homos are going to hell—hey, I have comebacks for that. Being alert for potential rapists when walking at night or listening to women get called sluts—yeah, yeah, no surprise there. On those topics, I have some distance. Anti-gay or misogynist crimes make me sad and angry, but they don’t slice me open the way this has. 

But trigger-happy racism: that’s newly personal. I don’t have any scar tissue that’s grown over to numb the blow. 

Oh, I’ve tangled with racism in the world, and in my own family, before. I wrote about my African American aunt and biracial cousins here, a decade ago. Here are the paragraphs that open a piece about biracial memoirs: 

When I was 18, I learned, quite belatedly, that my father's brother had married a black woman. The wedding took place in 1958—the year I was born, the year after my parents married. [And, I would now add, a year in which their marriage could still get them arrested in many states.] Instantly I knew that racism had kept me from knowing my uncle (by then dead of a heart attack), my aunt, my cousins. Instantly I knew I would have to find them. But it was one thing to discover that the deepest, most volatile division in the country ran right through my family; actually crossing that divide to claim kinship was, for a long time, too daunting for someone whose only experience with "diversity" was being the sole Jewish kid among her semirural Ohio high school's 2,300 students.

And so it wasn't until my thirties that I finally met my aunt and cousins. To my surprise, they treated me not just as a cousin but as a living symbol of racial reconciliation. Once we'd met, told stories, and compared features—we share a long jaw and sharp chin—I started to notice how arbitrarily I'd sorted the world around me into "black" or "white." All around were black people who looked related to me. White friends had color in their families of blood or choice: a stepfather, a spouse, a sister-in-law, a dearest friend. I started to feel that every American whose family has been here more than a few decades is from a mixed-race family, that somewhere out there—however near or far—we all have relatives of the "other" color. African Americans know this, of course, often down to the name of at least one plantation owner in the family tree. But for a white girl in a color-bound world, this was news. 

In other words, for what it’s worth, becoming my little man’s stepmother has not been my first experience with transracial family ties. But it is the most intimate—and the first one in which I’m supposed to be a protector. 

I know how to talk to him about having two moms. I know how to talk to him about his fears of “bad guys” and burglars. But there’s something horrifyingly vulnerable about being unable to protect my child from a kind of hatred that I have never faced—and that he doesn’t yet know is out there.