Coping with the Zimmerman verdict, through letters from my incarcerated father
The first thing I wanted to do when I heard that George Zimmerman was going to walk free and clear in the killing of Trayvon Martin (besides scream, weep, and curl in a ball) was talk to my father.
I knew he would have some words of wisdom and truth to share about the pain and sense of betrayal I was feeling. Unfortunately, instead of talking to him I had to look to his letters from prison for comfort and support. As I sat with years of letters all over my living room floor, the painful irony of the moment had not escaped me. I couldn’t deal with my pain about the killing of black men without first dealing with my pain about the incarceration of black men.
I was forced to see how the system that produced Trayvon’s death, and the verdict that set his killer free, colludes with the system that stole my father. As a mother of a 21 year old college senior, my body ran cold as I dealt with the cruel reality that far too many Black mothers like Sybrina Fulton will need a prison or funeral fund before they need a college fund. It was a long hard night.
Drawing strength from years-old letters
I must have re-read more than a dozen of my father’s letters that night, but I eventually found just what I needed. As I poured through years of old letters, I was reminded that my father often signed his letters to me with the revolutionary rallying cry from Mozambique’s movement for independence: “A Luta Continua” — Portuguese for “the struggle continues.” I haven’t talked to my father in a long time, but his words and his message about freedom struggles meant everything to me after the verdict.
My father, Robert ‘Seth’ Hayes, is a former Black Panther Party member and political prisoner. He’s been incarcerated for 40 years — nearly my entire life. I don’t think I ever really paid much attention to those words before now, but there they are reminders to me that our fight for freedom and justice is never over.
His words were like a wave of tough love and hugs that pushed me to think critically past my pain. My father was always good with helping me to find my own power. Like all the other “behind the wall” parental lessons I’ve learned about life from him, this one felt special and particularly powerful in a moment when I was feeling extremely demoralized and helpless. His letters reminded me that we all have a responsibility to do something productive and meaningful about the senseless killing of thousands of Trayvon Martins and the entire system that refused to hold their killers accountable.
I know my father’s letters are the only reason I am even here today. Through my father’s example I grew up confident knowing that I am built to overcome struggle; and I have. I am so grateful that he drilled into my head, that no matter the challenges headed my way—and there have been plenty and will be plenty more—that what really defines our lives and gives us meaning is our willingness to push hard past our fear and fight for the project of justice and freedom in this country. He’s done this better than anyone I know, and if I’ve learned nothing else by watching his tireless fight over the past 40 years its that fear is more dangerous than any prison and some are living in their own cages everyday.
His life and example helps me to cope with my sadness about a world that discards black and brown children so fast that there’s no time to even mourn, or remember their names, before it happens again. I keep reminding myself that no matter how painful it is right now, that we’re “built and equipped” to struggle with it and make it through together. I’ve learned how to push past my rage, come face-to-face with evil, and do so with my humanity intact. Transforming ourselves, and our communities into a place where are children are protected and not policed depends on it.
This is real revolution that black and brown children fight everyday when they struggle to become more than the despised images that they see reflected at them in a world that denies all of their goodness and complex humanity. This is not the world my father sacrificed 40 years in prison for without his family, and it’s not the world we should settle for either.
We can do better
We don’t have to live like this. We can do better, but we definitely won’t get there unless we’re willing to struggle for it and this means a willingness to talk honestly and openly about race, racial bias, and the systems that perpetuate and support it. As President Obama said today, in an unplanned, televised discussion of the Trayvon Martin verdict, we have a very long history of racial wounds and trauma in this country that keeps scabbing over but never truly heals.
If we don’t start having substantive courageous conversations about systemic racism and change our antiquated thinking that still sees Black men as bogeymen and monsters, nothing will change. The fight my father’s generation fought was a racial battle that looks a little different today. We have to stop trying to use those same tools and thinking to address 21st century racial issues.
This is the work of my generation. Future racial justice workers would see the absurdity in a system that hold someone more accountable for a racial slur than it would for killing another human being. It would also change our laws to reflect implicit racial bias not just conscious intent.
As a social justice activist and college educator, when I teach or run workshops on racial justice one of the first things that I do is talk about unconscious bias. In fact, in my social justice class, one of the first assignments I give my students is the Harvard Implicit Association Test or AIT, which measures our subconscious feelings and thoughts. The AIT data is pretty clear on racial bias. More than 70 percent of whites and 40 percent of African-Americans hold anti-black racial bias. I use this test to talk about that and what it means to live in a world saturated in stereotypes, prejudice, and biases outside of our control.
It’s not easy, because we’re so conditioned to believe that someone (the boogey man) or something can only be racist when it’s an overt act that most “good” people would condemn as wrong, like using the n-word. This is how our culture can blame Trayvon Martin’s death on a hoodie while defending George Zimmerman’s action as justifiable.
I don’t know Zimmerman, but my guess is that he’s not unlike most of the country. He’s probably a regular guy who loves his family and believes that everyone should be treated “equally.” Unfortunately, the night when Zimmerman saw a black kid he didn’t know, none of this mattered. Zimmerman made a set of assumptions that led to the death of another unarmed black man.
In his own words, Trayvon was a “punk” and “up to no good.” Zimmerman, like all of us, lives in a culture that conditions us to devalue and dehumanize black lives everyday. We’re all walking around with unconscious racial biases, that when allowed to go unchecked and unexamined in a country addicted to its guns, and dangerous policies, like “stand your ground” laws it can turn even the most law abiding citizen into the monsters we condemn. The only monster to fear today is the hidden one of racial bias and it’s hiding out in our interactions, policies, politics, and practices.
My father was right. We must use our collective pain and grief to transform our communities and our culture into a world that values the complex humanity of all children and people, no matter their race, ethnicity, faith traditions, who they choose to love, or the borders they crossed to get here. The one thing I know for sure is that, if my father can continue to fight for his freedom after 40 years of being behind bars, we can all fight for the freedom to live in a racist-free world. We just have to find the moral and political will to do it.
We’ve buried and incarcerated enough black men and women. For now, the first thing I plan to do is write my father a letter to thank him for teaching me how to fight and for staying strong for the both of us even when I wanted to give up.
‘A Luta Continua’
Crystal Hayes is a social work scholar, educator, and activist. Crystal can be reached via Twitter @motherjustice.