“What do you mean that you feel threatened by me, ma’am?”
That’s what I heard my boyfriend say to our neighbor when she came to our apartment two weeks ago. In the late evening, she came to our door demanding a conversation. Despite my disinterest given her pattern of prejudicial behaviors, my boyfriend patiently engaged her.
We moved into our Montgomery County apartment last year. On move-in day, it took three separate efforts on my part to finally get her to shake my hand and acknowledge my presence when I went to introduce myself. Since then, she’s hit every major stereotype about blacks, suggesting that we’ve attempted to burglarize her home, complaining about loud music coming from a stereo we do not own, and calling me “hostile.” She has also gone as far to infer things about “where we’re from” and how we’re “used to living.”
That night at our front door, she told us about how the proximity of our very existence made her uncomfortable and “afraid” of us.
“It’s not anything personal,” said the woman who told him my name “wasn’t important.”
Their conversation had volleyed back and forth from opposite sides of the doorway. My ears tuned in as I heard my boyfriend’s voice soften in a way I’d never heard before. “How am I threatening you, ma’am?”
It was a strange sound. One that searched for understanding while suspended in disbelief that somehow he’d been perceived as menacing, despite the ordinariness of his actions.
Quickly, I went to the door and ended the conversation. Instinctively, I knew a black man’s innocence would never stand up next to a white person’s — especially a white woman’s — claims of discomfort, should it have escalated. As I moved toward the door, I saw the look in his eyes. Suddenly, a solid man of 6 feet looked keenly aware of the delicate minefield that lay before him. His smallness in the wake of her privilege infuriated me. He was in his home. He was being antagonized. And yet, in that moment as he advocated on his own behalf, as he fought for his right to be there, he was guilty.
Moments like this one explain why the Trayvon Martin case resonates so strongly with me. Such is the case for many other black people. We are all Trayvon Martin. We know his story; we’ve lived it ourselves. With this verdict, a judicial allowance of deadly force based on racial prejudice, we now find ourselves in greater danger. How convenient it must be to have the privilege to “not see race” as it becomes messy and inconvenient.
“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” – Audre Lorde
I would like to say that I was surprised by George Zimmerman’s “not guilty” verdict. I would like to say that I believed that a mostly white jury of white women could see a 17-year-old black boy in a hoodie as something other dangerous. I would like to say that I believed that they would see George Zimmerman’s decision to get out of his car as both absurd and antagonizing; that in following someone, he played the role of instigator. I would like to know that black men and women are entitled to defend themselves when they are confronted.
But then I would have to forget everything I already know about the way black people are viewed in this country.
I would have to forget Emmitt Till. Orlando Barlow. Kathryn Johnson. Kimani Gray. Chavis Carter. Sean Bell. Amadou Diallo. Oscar Grant. Jordan Davis. Fred Hampton. Rekia Boyd. Derek Williams. Countless others.
I would have to forget what I saw at my front door two weeks ago.
three little black boys
lying in a grave yard
i couldn’t tell
if they were playing
– Baba Lukata, “Rehearsal”
When I heard the verdict announced yesterday, a wave of sadness and anger crashed over me. I was angry because I’d allowed myself to hope. “If we didn’t know before, we know now,” I tweeted as I watched white cable news anchors try to understand black rage from their colleagues on live TV.
It’s simple, really. The frustrating thing about racism and racial prejudice is their duality as both subversive and customary. Enduring racism and surviving it become rites of passage; our communities grow accustomed to the narrative. The ability to anticipate your own oppression is maddening.
Following the death of her 14-year-old son, Emmitt Till, who was killed in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman, Mamie Till spoke on the collectivism of black identity:
“Two months ago I had a nice apartment in Chicago. I had a good job. I had a son. When something happened to the Negroes in the South I said, ‘That’s their business, not mine,’” she said. “Now I know how wrong I was. The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all.”
According to the Orlando Sentinel, there are nearly 450,000 signatures on the NAACP petition calling for the Department of Justice to investigate in shooting of Trayvon Martin. As I write this column, there are protests happening in Los Angeles, New York, Charlotte, Denver, Detroit and the Florida Capitol. There were others in Washington, D.C., and in here in Philadelphia. California freeways are swarmed with marching demonstrators and Times Square is flooded with large crowds of peaceful protesters.
Zora Neale Hurston once said, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” Without a public push for an investigation, Trayvon Martin’s story would be unknown to many, and George Zimmerman would not have been arrested, much less tried in front of a jury. In light of a “not guilty” verdict, we have begun to attend to the business of us all, affirming that we will not be silenced. We are all Trayvon Martin. And we will not die.