“But I can’t teach my son to live with insecurity, guardedness, suspicion. You can’t go through life fearing you will be shot or arrested because you walk at night alone while black.”
This is one of the things I wrote last week while trying to process the not guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman who killed the African American teenager Trayvon Martin.
In a world where a young black male can be killed, and the killer who chased and confronted him with a gun can convince a jury that he feared for his life, I said I fear for my son’s life.
I asked how Jacob Zuma and all the black men and women in positions of political power can sleep peacefully while so many black children and young people from violence and other preventable causes; that we are failing to protect our young and to make real this freedom many died for real.
The upshot of all this was that, I said, black kids and youngsters, especially boys and young men, continue to face from racism, or perhaps, more confusingly, something more subtle and thus more menacing. Living in a country run by a black president such as the US and South Africa, countries which to differing degrees are supposed to be free of racism, old-style racism at least, should mean that Trayvon Martin is alive today. If he is killed while walking in peace, his killer should be punished. Trayvon is dead, and his killer is free.
I am aware, as I have said several times, that many young black males are killed by other young black males. Whoever kills in circumstance other than mortal self-defence another must face justice. But I have also said that we can’t be interested in black men only when they get violent against women, other men, or themselves. We have to show our interest in them from day one, if it is genuine concern; from the moment they are born we have to shower them with attention as if they are some future Mandela or the British royal baby or something.
Then I saw the marches across US cities. Men and women of different race were protesting against the injustice. Something in me was restored. Seeing individuals and groups challenging the verdict reminded me of a simple lesson many of us too easily forget: individuals matter as much as society. Even if you are the only one speaking against the rest of us, what you say matters simply because you matter. We all need culture, laws, institutions, and the society which they constitute, but equally important your life (and how you meet death) as an individual matters.
Differently stated, even in racist or patriarchal society when can men run around with guns shooting black teenagers, individuals matter. What we do as individuals matter just as much as the laws of a country. We can contest the laws, we can raise our voices, we can hold hands and say, “this may be law but it is abhorrent; this may be tradition, but it smacks of injustice”.
Another small gesture, but terribly significant affirmation, came from Obama when he remembered that he was a once young black man with hopes and dreams. The black president of the US came on television and said:
“When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that—that doesn’t go away.
There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me—at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear. The African-American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws—everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.”
I might be far away from the US, but I am black. Black men everywhere where whites dominate society know these experiences.
More importantly, I identify with Trayvon Martin and his family and community because I am raising a black child. That’s why I said thank you Barack Obama for finally articulating the pain of being black, of raising black children, in a world which does quite accept the ordinariness of young black males; a world that constantly criminalises young black masculinity to the point of death.
As I have said before, one doesn’t pretend that black men don’t get killed by other black men to be concerned about racially motivated violence. They do, in large numbers. And if it is not clear so far that structural violence is entwined with interpersonal violence, let it be so then. As the US president went on to say:
“Now, this isn’t to say that the African-American community is naïve about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context. They understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.
And so, the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration. And the fact that a lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African-American boys are more violent—using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.
I think the African-American community is also not naïve in understanding that, statistically, somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else. So folks understand the challenges that exist for African-American boys. But they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there’s no context for it and that context is being denied. And that all contributes, I think, to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.”
Obama was not talking only of the African American experience. He was talking about all black people in countries when masculine whiteness is hegemonic.
The marches against the injustice against Trayvon Martin and his family were for black boys and their families everywhere in the world.
So, then, then, even from this loss of a young black man’s life physically far away from here but racially so close, we learn not to live with insecurity and fear but instead to teach our sons and daughters to live with honesty, self-knowledge, confidence, and determination.
We must not learn to hate but rather reach our offspring that they must trust themselves, seek joy in what they do, never give up on the truth, and know that they are capable of creating.
We must teach our children that their voices matters. That their interior lives matter. Their thoughts, feeling, acts matter. Their experiences matter. That even when society itself is against them, that they matter.