I called my son several days after hearing about the murder of a young, Black male — Trayvon Martin — in the small town of Sanford, Florida. I was working on the lead news story for The Miami Times where I am employed as the senior editor. Trayvon was just 17 years old when his life was cut short at the hands of a man who remains free — claiming that he shot in self-defense. Meanwhile, Martin was armed as well — with an iced tea and a bag of Skittles.
My youngest child and only boy, Jared, is 17 too. What did we talk about? The usual father-son banter: How is your girlfriend? Are you prepared for track season? Where are your classmates going to college? How’s your part-time job? Have you spoken with your sister lately? In a moment of silence I asked my son if he was aware of the tragedy that had recently taken place here in Florida.
I was pleased to hear that he had. It was then that I took time to pass on the wisdom that had been shared by my grandfathers, my father, several uncles and older, male cousins — something that black men (and women) have done since the days of slavery. I told him stories about how many brothers, young and old, had lost their lives not because they had committed a crime, not because they were evil and somehow “deserved” to die, but because of the color of their skin. They were black men and considered to be monsters, demons and a threat to “civilized society.”
As I recalled the stories, I grew more frustrated and angry. I would like to believe that America has gotten over its fear of the black man, its hatred for our swagger, its suspicion of our intentions and its assumption that our only desires are for wine, white women and never-ending parties.
I would like to think that because my son is a well-respected high school senior, leader and honor student bound in the fall for the same college that his mother, sister and I all attended — the University of Michigan — that I have nothing to fear. I would like to think that the fate of Trayvon Martin could never happen to my beloved son. But that would be like the ostrich blinded by ignorance, living with his head in the sand. Because at any moment it could happen to him — or to me.
Black males are viewed as disposable commodities in America — good for nothing more than sports highlights or starring in BET videos. And while the putrid stench of prejudice was thought to have been healed with the election of President Barack Obama, the reality is that we are still a much-divided nation. I told my son to beware of the white man and to know the laws that have been put in place to keep us in “ours” — our place, that is.
I told him about the time I spent with Simeon Wright, the cousin of Emmett Till, a few years ago — the same cousin who was in the bed next to Till when white men burst into their grandfather’s home and kidnapped, tortured and murdered the teenaged Till simply because he was a stranger in Mississippi and had failed to follow their customs.
They killed him because — they could. It seems that Trayvon committed a similar error — visiting the “plantation” [Sanford] and looking like a “dangerous” intruder — garbed in a hoodie and probably talking back when “massah” questioned him.
After the talk with my son, I didn’t feel any better but I hoped that he at least understood. I told him emphatically how proud I was of him and that I loved him. In his typical man-child reluctance he replied in similar fashion. For now we both can say we have survived one more day in this jungle that is America. But I sit in terror wondering where and when the next young boy, like Trayvon Martin, will see his dreams shattered and his life ended because of America’s pervasive sickness of racism.
As for Trayvon and his family’s ongoing quest for justice, I can only hope that the black community will spend less time pointing fingers and instead focus on finding ways to bring about immediate and lasting change in a political, economic and social system that permits white men to kill black boys — then boldly brags about their exploits.
Let’s not waste time with chants of “no justice, no peace.” Rather, let us use this moment to remove the veil under which America has hidden for centuries. This land is ours too. And we cannot rest until we are treated as such.