Dr. Donald E. Grant Jr. anxiously awaits the verdict in the trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin, knowing that historically, the U.S. criminal justice system has not valued the lives of Black men.
America sits moments away from a verdict in one of America’s most riveting public trials. We will soon know whether the murder of an unarmed 17 year old boy will be considered a crime punishable by the law. As we await the jury’s decision, I am consistently asking myself: “Is the criminality of murdering Black boys subject to debate in modern day America?”
Even though anti-lynching laws were established in the 1920’s, the deaths of black men and boys to vigilanty justice seekers remain very prevalent. I was a college freshman in 1995 when Antwan Sedgewick, a 20 year old African American man was found hanged from the monkey bars at a Virginia playground not far from my university. I was a senior in 1999 when Amadou Dialo, a 23 year old Black man was murdered when 41 police bullets rained over his unarmed body. I was the dad of 2 year old black boy in 2012 when Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old unarmed Black boy was cut down alone one rainy night in Florida. 3,347 lynchings of blacks were documented between 1882 and 1968, we can only guess how many more went “unreported”. Like most of the documented lynchings, many of these new millennium lynchings have gone unpunished, sending invariably strong messages to black boys that their lives are dispensable and their value is nil.
As I watched the closing arguments of the Trayvon Martin case, the prosecution’s ineloquent but substantive closing arguments were well bolstered by their charismatic heartfelt rebuttal that followed the defense. Although the defense paraded a host of bells and whistles, his horse and pony show couldn’t hide the fact that a child was dead. Unapologetically weaved throughout each soliloquy were attempts to convince rational human beings that this murder rises to the level of a punishable crime.
Since when is it not criminal to kill a non-threatening unarmed child near his home? As I listened I thought how different the course of this case would be if Zimmerman was a 28 year old black man and Martin was 17 year old white kid. Would we dare question the criminality of the gun slinging black man when a white child is the victim? Not at all, we often just try and figure out which charge is most fitting. This appears to evidence a place in our world where it is socially and legally sanctioned to approach, accost and murder black boy at your whim.
Jim Crow laws institutionalized the rules created by the vigilanty form of ‘justice’ known as lynching back in the mid 1870’s. The value of a black man’s life on this soil has long been tangibly defined. In 1860, young male slaves in good health could be purchased on average for about $1,300 each (about $20K by today’s standards). Male slaves garnered the highest costs when they were artisans like blacksmiths or carpenters. Ones cost was discounted if he had a physical handicap or a vice like alcohol. It appears that today a similar bounty remains, but remixed. Both slavery and Jim Crow have ended (not so long ago), so what now dictates the value of a black man’s life and which of us are most dispensable?
Black men of all spheres are subject to profiling and it’s potentially deadly consequences. It does however appear that if I dress a certain wage and speak with several graduate degrees, I artificially inflate my own value. What happens though when I decide to morph into another authentic presentation of self? What happens when I choose Nike over Ferregamo or Stussy over Theory? Does that render the criminality of someone taking my life subjective? Do these new millennium lynchings create a pricelist that decriminalizes the murders of black men who appear to be of less value to society? If Trayvon Martin was in a Burberry raincoat would he be alive today?
My great grand-father who lived until I was 21 years old would be appalled to know that I, along with other fathers of black boys today, are forced to lament daily on the bounties over the heads of our sons. Teaching my son to “mask manage” in each setting promotes the stereotype of the monolithic “good black man” while disunifying black men and empowering racism. However, denying him the ability to shift into inauthentic roles places him at an extreme disadvantage as institutionalized racism rages with consequences on a continuum ranging from psychic trauma to death and dismemberment.
The outcome of this case is not simply about a verdict, it presents an existential precedent of political violence that outweighs any conceivable legal precedent. Consistent experiences with unresolved political violence burdens future generations with psychological wounds. The verdict in this case has the capacity to further ingratiate into the fabric of America the lack of value assigned to the lives of some American citizens, black boys in particular.
As a result, black fathers like me have to look the eyes of their innocent sons and strategize. When, how and where we will remove their cloak of invisibility… or will it be callously ripped off at the discretion of another? Will he come home with a story of how a teacher minimized his intellect or how the check out lady at Neiman’s refused to assist him? Or will my anxiety drive me to reveal to him the ills of the world while he sits safely in the confines of my heart? Either way, I feel inadequately prepared to arm my young black son with a spirit of fortitude that can manage the wounds associated with our “post racial society”. As a wounded soldier, I have yet to master the technique myself.
The confirmation of fears is a tough pill to swallow. The verdict “Not Guilty”…the message, a precedent illustrating the collective devaluation of the lives of black boys. Langston Hughes summed it up best when he asked “What happens to a dream deferred?” He posited several answers, one of which was: “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or does it fester like a sore and then run?” I am sad for my son and all the young black boys in America who will continue to be viewed as less than smart and more than dangerous, less than loving and more than aggressive…this deferred dream sags like a heavy load as the years of status quo existentialism plows the land of our souls, draining all of its resources. Before the verdict, Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s daughter tweeted “Today is a defining moment for the status of my father’s dream”, yes Dr. Bernice King it was and we now see where we stand. It is evidenced by the cavalier explanations of the defense following the verdict and the dismissive nature of Robert Zimmerman’s (Georges brother) post verdict interview. The ease with which they blame this child for his own death is nauseating. Robert was asked if Trayvon had the right to defend himself against an adult with a gun…his response “Trayvon had the right to go home”.
Clouds of sadness mount as I note that black boys across America are not able to go to the store and expect to return home alive. In spite of the letter of the law, this boy was followed because he was black and subsequently murdered as a result of all the stereotypes that come along with being that. Any other explanation is a feeble attempt at denial. The contemporary messages to the world on who black men are and what they do puts a paralysis on change. We must not confuse a black POTUS for an eradication of racism. A great step does not an actualization make. I hope to participate in the movement as we restructure the ways in which black boys are viewed, as my black son is worthy of every opportunity that your son is…even if it is as simple as a store run. #Shakingmyheadandhuggingmyson
Photo of George Zimmerman: AP