In the public witness actions regarding the case of George Zimmerman killing Trayvon Martin, many people have carried signs reading, “I am Trayvon Martin.” This brings me to the question which I use to headline this post.
This case has triggered something deep in much of the African-American population in the United States. I have heard from a number of whites whose response is to analyze the case. This I think is missing the point. In some ways, the case is not ideal as a frame for looking at the larger issues. But Zimmerman’s relationships with African-Americans and the way Martin responded when he felt threatened by Zimmerman should not be the focus of our national discussion. Rather, we should be looking at why this case causes such deep reactions among our African-American brothers and sisters, and how we can address these underlying issues. I think the President’s comments to the nation on July 19 provide a more useful framework.
My personal reaction not surprisingly is closely related to my personal experience. Due to the unique circumstances of my life, my perspective is informed in the way that the perspective of most Americans of European heritage is not.
Martin died when he was a 17-year-old high school student. So I think back to when I was a 17-year-old high school student - which is 48 years ago for me. The year I turned 17 my family moved to a small Southern town where my father taught at an African-American college, and we lived on the campus. This was my senior year of high school. This was the first year of token integration in that rural county.
The school system didn’t decide until the last minute how to handle the buses. They communicated bus information to students by telephone. My family did not have telephone service because the local office of the phone company (this was the days of phone company monopoly) didn’t want to serve “n****r lovers” (the asterisks were filled in in their case), and it took months for the appeal to go through to get our telephone. As a result, they were unable to notify me of what bus to use.
Because I had not been told what bus to use, I went with a kid three doors down on campus who was going to the same school. He was African-American. The bus driver was quite surprised to see me, but I was allowed on the bus. The buses were segregated. Our bus served its dozen students after it dropped off students at the black high school in the morning and before it picked them up in the afternoon. As a result we got to school late each day and left early each day.
Only one white student at the school would talk to me with other than insults. Since I was the only senior on the bus, I was isolated most of the day. I remember being really scared for my safety when one time the science teacher sent the class off to lab and didn’t come with us. During that lab, one student (President of Youth for Goldwater) remarked loudly to another student, “If there’s one thing I hate worse than a n****r, it’s a n****r lover.” Fortunately I was not physically attacked, but I always felt in danger.
The whites in town knew me as “that n****r lover in the high school.” When I walked down the streets of that tiny town, I saw each white person on the street as a potential threat to me, and each African-American as a friend. This perspective was realistic. This was my experience for a year, and only when I was in that town. So this was only a taste of what African-Americans experience every day wherever they are. They are always marked persons in the larger American society.
What white people in this country need to understand is how it feels for a person of color - and most dramatically for a young African-American male - to be a marked person viewed suspiciously by many others when they are in the larger society environment. If whites can achieve some understanding of what that feels like, they can begin to understand the emotional reaction of African-Americans to the case. It isn’t just about one person in Sanford, Florida. It’s about all who have experienced being regarded as suspicious simply for who they are. The “I am Trayvon Martin” signs express a deep truth about them also being treated as suspicious for who they are.
So I am Trayvon Martin, or at least I was Trayvon Martin. And with my African-American brothers and sisters, I yearn for the day when no one is treated as suspicious just because of the color of their skin, and perhaps combined with their age, their gender and what they happen to be wearing. I yearn for a day when each person regards each other person as a brother and sister worthy of dignity and respect across the boundaries of ethnicity, culture, age, gender, class, sexual orientation, mental and physical abilities, and anything else which divides us artificially.