A bullet forever keeps us from knowing what Trayvon Martin might have grown up to become. But the maternal magnificence of his making was unmistakable as his mother stood in the broiling sun to address the vigil in New York on Saturday.
“Trayvon is not here to speak for himself,” Sybrina Fulton began.
A few minutes before, the demonstrators had erupted in giddy cheers on seeing that they were being joined by Jay-Z and Beyoncé. The crowd now hushed. This mother from Florida who looks so much like the son whose likeness was stenciled on her T-shirt stirred the crowd more profoundly than celebrity or even music ever could.
“We love you, Sybrina!” a voice called out from the crowd.
Fulton was not there to sing about pain. She was living it, searingly real and as deep as it could be. And yet she did not let it propel her into the blinding anger that so often accompanies grief. She has from the very start summoned all her strength and faith to turn her pain into purpose. She has continued to speak with the measured voice of moral authority itself even after the not-guilty verdict.
“Trayvon was a child,” she now noted. “I think sometimes it got lost.”
She recalled aloud how during the trial her son had often been spoken of as if he were a grown man who had found himself being followed by a stranger. “It was a child who acted as a child, who thought as a child,” she said. “And don’t take my word: he had a drink and candy.”
The heat seemed to rise even higher as the crowd roiled at the thought of this 17 year-old being shot to death when he had just been out buying Skittles and an Arizona fruit drink. The mother’s voice remained even, as cool as wisdom, but still mommy warm.
“I promise you to work for your child as well,” she said.
She was refusing to be lost in her own hurt and she urged others not to allow themselves to give way to anger. She said she wanted their voices to be heard, but to be effective, they had to stay true to what has been her unwavering approach amid the outrage.
She said rather than railing, she and those working with her will be planning, carefully divining the most effective course. “I feel nobody is hurting more than me and my family,” she said. “So please, follow us. Let us lead you.”
Her goal was clear: “So we change some of these laws.”
Among the hundreds who listened to her was 15-year-old David DuBois, an excellent student at Bergen Catholic High School in New Jersey who wants to be a neurologist so he can pursue his interest in the human brain. “It’s just amazing how it works,” he had said as he waited for the vigil to begin. “It controls everything.”
But he is African-American, and that means that he is too familiar with being followed in stores by people who assume his is bent on larceny. “You kind of get that sense when there’s someone following you,” he said.
He had once been followed in a candy concession while on a school trip to the amusement park in Hershey, Pennsylvania. His shadow had finally confronted him. “He said, ‘Are you stealing something?” DuBois remembered. “Then my teacher came and said, ‘Leave him alone.’”
David had now crossed the river to join one of dozens of vigils held Saturday for a fellow African-American teen who no doubt got that same feeling being followed shortly before he was shot to death—an imagined crook turned imagined threat who was in fact, as his mother had just reminded everybody, simply a child out to buy candy and a drink.
“It’s a part of history,” David said.
As the vigil came to a close, Jay-Z and Beyoncé departed, having been classy enough to decline to take the stage. Instead, they had stood in the back and bore witness, not even seeking shade until the end of the vigil. A mob of photographers swarmed around them as they made their way to a waiting vehicle.
The stars had no sooner departed than the photographers hurried back to where Trayvon’s mother was preparing to leave. The Rev. Al Sharpton was at her side, having been his usual rousing self in addressing the vigil, but also taking care to note that the “stand your ground” law is not an issue that affects just blacks. “It’s a human thing,” he had said.
Sharpton now escorted Fulton through the moving media swarm. They continued past the African Burial Ground, where the remains of 419 slaves are interred, these including a boy not yet in his teens whose bones show that he had carried such crushing loads, he had been was literally worked to death. The black marble monument was inscribed with a heart-shaped symbol that had been traced with tacks in the lid of one of the slave coffins that had been discovered during excavation for the adjoining federal building. The symbol was a Sankofa sign, whose message is that those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it.
“We’ve been to too many of those,” Sharpton had said to me moments before as I beheld him once again escorting someone who had lost a loved one to racially driven violence.
But with all the aggressively intruding camera lenses, this was not a moment to gaze upon the burial ground and wonder how it is that we still have so far to go before we have really learned the lesson inscribed on the coffin of the slave who has come to be called Mr. Sankofa.
Sharpton continued with Fulton alongside the federal building, and on a lobby wall beside the plate glass hung a portrait of President Obama, who had been moved to say the day before that he could have been Trayvon Martin 35 years ago. Obama had also spoken of having been followed in a department store.
At the corner, Sybrina Fulton climbed into a black SUV. She says that she is just beginning her work to keep others from becoming a Trayvon Martin in this country, where so much and yet so little has changed.