A look back on how the Trayvon Martin verdict shook up my world in an all too familiar way.
Not. Guilty. It hardly seems like it, but we are approaching three months since the announcement of the Trayvon Martin verdict. Immediately after that hammer was dropped, I was a ball of unbridled fury. The simple fact was that although I was hardly surprised by Zimmerman’s acquittal, given this country’s track record and its justice system’s inherent prejudices, the news stung no less. The Martin case and the toxic social constructs that surrounded it made clearer than ever that a new-look 3/5ths clause seems to be at play in America. In my dealings with people in the days that followed, I actively worked to keep emotion from overwhelming logic. Yet it was all too difficult to not be personally damaged by the news.
As was the case for so many others, anguish for the family of a complete stranger washed over me upon receiving word of the acquittal. It wouldn’t take long for this pain to metastasize into visceral anger, which approached critical mass when a new co-worker unexpectedly asked to touch my hair that hazy Monday morning, and then did so without awaiting my permission (Non-black people, just a heads up: This is a “thing”; see Ayana Byrd’s “Hair Story: Untangling The Roots Of Black Hair In America” for a solid primer).
Though I’m happy to report that this ended up being an instance of “When Keeping It Real Goes Right,” the residual anger and humiliation I experienced in its wake was a lucid echo of the confused feelings surrounding the first time this had happened: On my second day as the only black kid in my class at the first of two Baltimore private schools where I would spend 12 years of my life.
Having been skipped ahead in public school in kindergarten, I shared my homeroom with students who certainly weren’t from the hardest parts of a hard city, but with whom I still couldn’t connect on a number of levels simply due to the way I carried myself (read: “not black-ly enough”). I learned at a young age that I had only one foot in the realm of what it meant to be black with a capital B.
Often bullied simply because I was able to deftly tackle remedial 1st grade tasks, I was elated at the news that I would be escaping the existential Alcatraz that was the Baltimore public school system after that grueling first year. All it took was getting stabbed in the roof of my mouth with a pencil by a particularly persistent bully named Christopher.
I could not have anticipated how much different my world would become upon entering private school. While the hair touching and inappropriate questions from kids who, for the most part, had never seen a black person who wasn’t their cleaning lady would prove to be awkward and uncomfortable in those earlier years, none of it would come close in the way of reminding me of my Actual Blackness to my experiences at my private middle/high school.
After an uncomfortable refractory period adjusting to this prestigious North Baltimore institution (mostly sticking with the 21 classmates from my previous school who’d taken the leap with me), it didn’t take long for me to learn where I stood in this new environment. On an overcast September day at recess, I would be called a nigger to my face for the first time (I’d had it shot my way, under the breath, at age five in a grocery store by a woman whose cart I had inadvertently jostled; My mother almost caught a case that day). All I did to provoke this was introduce myself in an attempt to make a new friend.
And while I wanted nothing more than to put my fist through the back of this kid’s skull, I receded in the face of this ugliness in what would be the beginning of a pattern of turning more cheeks than I probably should have. I quickly learned at that school that I wasn’t like the other boys, virtually all white and upper-middle to upper class. This alienation coupled with static from black friends in my neighborhood for “acting white” properly knocked my racial identity thought-plane off its axis.
Attempts to thrive simultaneously in both the black world at home and the white world at school soon gave way to a misguided quest for assimilation into the latter. Straightening of the hair; Lusting after white female classmates (whilst denying that anything black could be beautiful); Listening to shitty alt-rock in order to stay abreast of the tastes of modern white youth—All of it stemming from a virulent self-loathing that I’ve thankfully surmounted in the years since.
“You can fuck ‘em, but you can’t be ‘em,” warned a concerned black teacher during a tense dressing-down in a hallway my sophomore year of high school, the admonition catalyzed by my friend Anthony dying his hair blond the day prior (earning him the nickname Sisqo for the remainder of the year). I couldn’t see it as such then, but bundled in the tightly wrapped husk of seeming harshness was a message encouraging self-love and self-acceptance that I simply wasn’t ready for.
I also had the good fortune of having parents who, sometimes over-zealously, guided me through the broad context of race. I was warned that if I ever got pulled over while with the white friends they noticed I’d been spending more time with as adolescence wore on, I’d be thrown under the jail while my white counterparts would be given 7 day, 6 night all-expenses-paid trips to Turks and Caicos. Given the atrocious statistics of American incarceration rates along racial lines, I can hardly blame them. But mine is a story rife with examples of grace. The folly of youth definitely should’ve led me to the clink at least once or twice, but it just never worked out that way somehow.
Additionally, my parents warned me from an early age that most of the world’s view of me would be filtered through the distorted lenses of media portrayal and prejudiced thinking. It’s hard to argue against the fact that this misperception of the black male as a threat by his very nature is what led to Martin’s death (and his consequent persecution in the trial of his killer).
The majority of my time on this planet has been spent honing a dual consciousness, yet every so often, moments such as the miscarriage of justice that was the Martin case serve as a shock to the system to remind me of my seeming unforgivable blackness. My experience as a black male in America has been nothing short of a series of re-calibrations. Up to this point, navigating the causeways of both white and black America has made me only slightly wiser, and I have not been inured to the brutality, subtle and not so subtle, of prejudice, bigotry and discrimination. To quote the homie Euripides from “CB4,” “The devil is in full effect!”
More than anything, the Martin case drove home that to the prejudiced, ignorant mind blinded by fear and incapable of empathy, I am just another thug on the street, a threatening presence to be vilified and marginalized. I am neither a loving son, brother or boyfriend, nor am I dedicated co-worker or anyone of value to society. I am the Other. If anything, the endgame of the protracted Martin ordeal shook me loose from the groove of racial comfort I’d lulled myself into.
To be sure, my non-pigmental bi-racialism is not unique to me; all blacks must at least intermittently nurture and wield two different sensibilities, vocabularies, etc. It didn’t take long for me in my formative years to learn what it meant to “act white,” or to speak in “Ebonics” when the need arose (i.e., to meld seamlessly into an all black setting, usually among strangers at a barber shop, cookout, etc.).
So, fast forward to that morning after the not guilty verdict had been laid at the nation’s feet, and after much stewing during the hour-long commute to work, some woman I don’t even know is running her hands through my hair like I’m some sort of exotic plaything she picked up while on vacay in Madagascar. And here I am, plotting a one-man race war, unbeknownst to my predominately white co-workers. The wit of the staircase, for what it’s worth (which is to say, not much) told me that when she asked if she could touch my hair, I should’ve immediately snapped back with, “Only if I can touch yours!” Damn that would’ve been good.
Moments after I’d moved on from the hair touching, I went to a laundromat in our commercial complex to use the vending machines. Rising up after grabbing my 75-cent bag of Famous Amos cookies, I heard a distant voice say that it was a good thing that I didn’t get Skittles. Only upon turning toward the voice and realizing that it was in fact a long-time customer, who is black, did the flash of rage subside.
What I realized in the twilight of that day was that I had to “stay at home,” so to speak, and continue to be the best human being I could be, impacting those around me as positively as possible. There was nothing I could do for that dead boy in Sanford, nor was there anything I could do to bring Zimmerman to justice when a court of law had not seen fit to do so. Surely, anger changed to acceptance, and the only place left to go from there is action. As a former scumbag now in remission, my trip in life these days is to try to give back as much as I can to a world I took so much from.
As the sun set on that exhaustive, cathartic day, a friend asked whether we (blacks in America) were to fight or run, echoing the overwhelming sentiment earlier that day that our own country was never really quite home. Though it is not easy to concede in the face of some of the derisive racism that is still present on so many levels in America, I now know the answer is neither.
While Baltimore is certainly no Sanford, Florida (and thank goodness for that), there is a balkanization along racial and socioeconomic lines here that has isolated many citizens from one another, geographically and spiritually. The continued Johns Hopkins East Side revitalization and the art scene that’s sprouted up out of the cracked concrete of Station North have many areas of town on an upward trajectory, but time will only tell as to whether those already firmly rooted in this city’s heart will share in the prosperity of development and culture.
For almost all of us, this city is our home for the foreseeable future, and thus we are all best served by partaking of the most inclusive approach possible when it comes to developing and nurturing the minds, bodies and souls of current generations and the ones to come. Given this city’s challenges, however, this goal will take an earnest effort from the best and brightest the city can muster.
Three months after that gripping case came to a disappointing yet absolute end, we are left to sort out just how “post-racial” this American community of ours truly is. Albeit begrudgingly, and after many years of beating my head against the wall literally and figuratively, I can now acknowledge that although I do not have the power to affect the thinking of those consumed by hate and prejudice, the heart of the matter is that the bigotry of a segment of the population does not define me unless I allow it to do so.