United by Tragedy

We Are All Trayvon Martin

We must dismantle the fraternity of racism and build an altar of love and justice, writes the pastor of Obama’s former church.

Allison Joyce / Getty Images

As 5:00 was approaching in Chicago on Wednesday, April 11, and our community was abuzz with the possible announcement of the arrest and formal charges against George Zimmerman, many in the Chicagoland area were hopeful and cynical as television pundits made predictions about the case, as if they were reporting on some unique sporting event. “This tragedy has uncovered and aggravated a deep psychic wound in our country,” my wife stated Wednesday night, on behalf of many Americans.

The ever-present apparition of race in America. I am not speaking of just color, but the social constructions, dynamics of economics, privilege and the peculiar challenge of the promise of democracy juxtaposed against the reality of an unfinished republic.

As a parent, my heart was broken and I wept when I first heard the 911 tapes and watched Mr. Tracy Martin, 17-year old Trayvon’s father, on television attempt to come to grips with his grief and the insanity of a law that claimed deadly force was permissible outside the home, against his son, an “alleged assailant” who was walking home with Skittles and a can of iced tea to his father’s house. I was stunned, shocked, angry, and then heartbroken. What must I do to protect my 11-year-old son, whose skin has been kissed by nature’s sun, just as mine? What must I do to protect my son? I am raising him to value education, live with integrity, and to have a deep sense of spirituality. But this moment opened up the psychic scar people of African descent carry in our hearts, on a daily basis. We can abide by every law, live by all the rules, but the specter of race and racialized opinion and pathology still haunt our democracy. It is not just the death of Trayvon Martin that troubles my soul, but the second death orchestrated by racialized assassins who sought to sully the name of a child who could not speak from the grave.

Trayvon Martin was violated by the cruelty of gun violence, but was violated again by privilege, power, and the cruelty of a system that believes black boys, whether on the honor roll or college bound, are suspect. Black boys in hoodies are aesthetically and unconsciously calling for violent action. Black boys who do not “acquiesce” to strange men without “judicial” authority asking for information or a passbook are considered instigators. Black boys who are late to school, or laugh with friends, and engage in silly teenage behavior are “examples of gangster culture.”

None of my white friends will ever have to worry about his or her child in the same manner. My friend, whose child snowboards and wears baggy pants, will always be seen as a bright college-bound young man who loves to dress like Sean White. My friend, whose son plays football and wears a hoodie, is viewed as a college-bound jock. My friend whose son is an honor student, who is loud and, at times, irreverent yet bound for college, is viewed as “artistic.” My son, smart, creative, funny, caring and witty, will be viewed as a threat, suspect or suspicious, by certain sectors of society.

It is in this context, when I send my child to school, when we walk together, play ball together, ride to church together, that I look at him and I must tell him the truth of being a black man in America. We belong to a fraternity created by the dysfunction of history and the immaturity of this democracy. I will tell him: “Live your life to the fullest and to the highest. But the specter of race still haunts our lives.”

We are all Trayvon Martin. We are all Trayvon Martin’s parents. All of us, whether called black, brown, white, yellow, sprit-filled, agnostic, or atheist must dismantle the fraternity of racism and build an altar of love and justice. We need a democratic environment where children can be children and guns and gun violence will no longer be a part of our national dialogue. We honor Trayvon Martin and his memory when we seek justice and create a country where the grief of the Martin family will be an uncommon occurrence in American democracy.