When the “Not Guilty” verdict I half-expected was announced on Saturday, I thought back to June and a faculty meeting we had at my Catholic high school two days after underclassmen had cleared their lockers and been dismissed for the summer. Teachers and administrators spent those days assessing the year and discussing new directions for the one to come.
The meeting began with a reading from the Bible, 1 John 4: 7-21. Two lines resonated with me. The first stated, “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” The second simply said, “There is no fear in love.” I liked the notion of a fearless love bounding through alleyways and trailer parks and gated communities and cul de sacs in search of doubters to convert.
We broke into groups to discuss the difficulty teachers sometimes confront when transporting John’s lesson into an urban classroom. A few of my colleagues, however well-meaning, acknowledged the intimidation they sometimes felt as they faced the black and brown faces gathered before them. Thus far, as I prepare to enter my ninth year of teaching, I have never been afraid of any student, but I understood what they meant.
I bet the Zimmerman jurors understood it too. On some level, as deep and primal as our need for food, we all have been taught that a young black male poses a threat to the order of things. His dreams are bigger than his britches. His grasp is shorter than his reach. In his frustration, he pounds at the wall before him. He paces the ground with an ominous energy, a predator in need of prey. For him, love is either a capitulation or a conquest. Within him, there is no poetry, no violins, no God.
Yesterday, in an interview I heard on NPR, Robert Zimmerman, brother of George, could not explain why, in March, he tweeted a picture of Martin with his middle fingers pointed upwards juxtaposed with a similar shot of De’Marquise Elkins, a seventeen-year-old black male accused of fatally shooting a thirteen-month-old baby in the face during a robbery attempt on the baby’s mother. Besides their age, gender, race, and the middle finger salute, these two young men have nothing in common. Or do they? To Zimmerman, these two young black males are pieces of the same dirty puzzle. They are angry, aimless demons whose sole purpose is to make life unbearable for the rest of us–unless we do as George did and arm ourselves, pursue, confront, and erase, even if it claims some mother’s defenseless child.
I considered Mr. Elkins, the young man from Georgia now branded with an unthinkable crime. I wished he could find space in my classroom. In his short, early life, what else did he learn besides this violent behavior of which he is accused? I am not surprised that he, like too many others, would dabble in the emblems and lifestyles so many claim is the only legitimate birthright of young black life. Much has been made of Martin’s “thug ambitions” displayed in social media photos: the bling, marijuana plants, gold grill, naked teenage girls, and even a picture of a gun. But I recognize these imposters for what they are–a young black male’s awkward attempt to simulate what so many claim he is.
There are too many rappers and lyricists and marketers who willingly peddle their lucrative, hollow prescriptions of what young, susceptible blacks should think and say and worship, too many fathers afraid to become men and help uplift their children, too many mothers lost in their own versions of reality TV. And, if you happen to be poor, it is debilitating to live in a bubble where currency is the only tangible evidence of God’s favor and love.
We all know about the oft-repeated problems, pitfalls, and pejoratives splattered across the comment section of any article or opinion piece remotely mentioning race. What we too often forget is that the remedy is older than the symptoms they chronicle. Knowledge is power, but, in too many quarters, power is the one thing young, black teenagers must never have.
Throughout this horrible tragedy, I always saw Trayvon Martin as one of my students, at times serious, at times playful and mischievous. I saw a beaming light of hope and possibility. I saw humor, and zest, and days when sitting still might be a problem, and nights when homework was the last thing on his mind. When I look into the photographs I have seen, I see the presence of God.
During the trial, when his friend Rachel Jeantel wilted under intense cross-examination, the teacher in me wanted to scoop her up, march her into my classroom, and fortify her insides. I understood her defensiveness on so many levels, and I knew she was and is so much more than even she accepted. All I kept wondering as she testified was where were her teachers all those years when she needed them?
When aggressive Juror B37, already on a pre-book tour she is now second-guessing, was asked to explain why she could not understand much of Ms. Jeantel’s testimony, she said she believed Martin’s friend felt “inadequate toward everyone because of her education and her communication skills. I just felt sadness for her.” When addressing the teens’ vernacular, she observed, “I think it’s just everyday life, the type of life they live, and how they’re living in the environment that they’re living in.” She still claims this case was never about race, but, in my world, “they” will never be “us.”
It all comes back to teaching. But how can our educational system ever prosper if we see too many of the children in it as defective, as menaces on the rise? Trayvon Martin stood his ground and sought to protect his person from a stranger who wanted to define him as something he was not and had never been. If teachers across this nation stand in front of their classrooms in the fall and see malice instead of miracles, no real learning can occur– no exchange is possible. The educational growth we waste millions chasing will remain elusive as long as the bearers of knowledge, whatever their race, remain afraid.
Again, in the Bible, John tells us, “There is no fear in love.” But it seems fanciful to be fearless in the world today. There are too many bodies littering the road, too many Boston Marathon bombings, or Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, or Aurora, Colorado theater massacres, or Trayvon Martin murders, not to be wary of something.
Perhaps it is better to reverse it. There is no love in fear. Fear extinguishes all compassion, all empathy, all light. Fear feeds on darkness, walls, and easy subdivisions. Fear turns a young black male with an Arizona iced tea, a bag of Skittles, and a hooded sweatshirt on a rainy night into an enemy whose eradication is commendable and justified.
Black parents all over America will redouble their efforts to teach their children not to bristle in the face of another man’s fear. They will tell their progeny they must nod and explain and never fight back. Sadly, it is part of a life they must learn to accept.
When their children return to school in the fall, too many will gather in buildings whose adult occupants are too fearful to teach, too eager to suspend or expel, too ready to corral into overcrowded rooms, too willing to discipline rather than instruct, too determined to poke and probe, test and retest in the name of learning and data, too unwilling to listen and enlighten, and too happy to blame their predictable failings on these unworthy children and their unworthy parents and lives.
For Trayvon Martin, fear led to his death. But to hear the lead defense attorney tell and retell it, only George Zimmerman had a right to feel it that night. Unarmed Trayvon Martin was the sociopathic hunter, and Zimmerman, with his concealed death machine and Superman illusions, was merely the watchman protecting his neighbors from yet another black plague waiting to explode. The jurors believed him, as most of us knew they would.
Unless we attack that racial calculus and disprove it, until we turn our classrooms into beacons of love rather than citadels of fear, there will be no light shining in too many places where a child of God, albeit black and undervalued, squints his or her American eyes, peering back.