Several friends have asked me how they should speak to their child about Trayvon Martin’s murder. It is an honor to be asked such a question. I do not have children. And, I’m someone who refuses to raise a black child (male, especially) in the United States. Too risky. When I travel, I observe black male children. I watch their body language, their confidence level, the tenor of their conversations, as a way to counter-balance what I see in my Brooklyn neighborhood.
In Brooklyn, I watch black male children (this includes teens). And, I see a false bravado, the heavy weight of ‘swag’, the untrusting eyes that dart about- and it saddens me. However, I do see the bright children, who are full of energy and hope and fun. And, they are usually surrounded by friends of a similar ilk. Both types, however, are dressed the same. I can imagine, in certain circumstances, no one would take the time to tell the difference. And, in case you were wondering, neither one is more valuable in my eyes.
When I was asked the question, “What do I say to my child?”, I came up short. Mainly because I can’t imagine that there is anything that Trayvon Martin’s parents could have said to him to prepare him for what happened. He had 4 minutes to figure out why a stranger was chasing him, less than one minute to scream for help. And, even less than that to be murdered. How do you prepare your child to avoid death in the span of 4 minutes?
If I were a parent and I knew my child was aware of the incident, I would have him or her write a letter to Trayvon. I would then address the major issues that were of concern for them. The themes, or words or feelings that kept repeating. And then, I might add a word or two beyond that to help them feel safe and to remind them of how extraordinary they are. Because, yes, my child would be extraordinary. Aren’t yours? And, wasn’t Trayvon? So, in lieu of having children. And, understanding how deep this cut for we adults, I am compelled to complete the action of letter writing, for myself.
I heard you scream.
I can’t remember a time when I did not know I was black. When I was 5, I was arm wrestling with my black male cousin, also age 5, on the front lawn of my Grandmother’s house. My Grandmother’s lawn was a safe space for me. It seemed, our Black family, one of a few in the town, were secure. I could run, jump, skip, play on the beach and be a curious child. But, on this day, something changed. White men drove by, in a car, and said, “Whitey beat the Nigger.” My cousin and I, immediately, ran into the house and reported to my Uncles, Aunts and cousins. They were laughing and talking in the kitchen. There was always laughter, talking and communion in my Grandmother’s house.
We told them what happened, things became serious. Within the scope of 5 minutes, my Uncles and Cousins got their walking sticks and went after those men. When they returned, they recounted a story of how the men were trapped on the bridge and they walked up to the car and the men attempted to roll their windows up, etc., etc., etc. I grew up in a town where a bridge goes up to let the boats pass. It is a wonderful town, my favorite place on earth. And, my relatives made it their duty to let me know that I was safe in that town. And, that no one had the right to disturb that feeling.
But, Trayvon, it was disturbed. And, it would be disturbed over and over again. Most times out of sight of my Uncles and Cousins. Most times, in secret. Many times in job interviews, in work environments, gathering a crew for film, watching it happen to friends and family, it seems it never ends. But, my Uncles and Cousins laid the foundation for how I would respond to such disturbances. With that one incident, they taught me to be fearless.
I guess what I need to say to you is, “I’m sorry, Trayvon. I truly am.” As an adult, I became an Activist. And, I guess, that hasn’t changed. At some point, I chose to do my activism in my Art. It became too hard to engage with small minds and small hearts. It became too taxing to have to constantly explain the ‘why’s and how’s’- the pains of living in black skin. The exhaustion in having to break down the obstacles, the minutiae. At times, wanting to scream, ‘you f***ing racist bastard, you will never get it because you don’t want to. But, my people are dying because people like you don’t get it. So, I’ve got to calm down and figure out a way to enlighten you.”
“I’m sorry, Trayvon”, because I could not write fast enough, get this film made fast enough, get my knowledge, to the center, fast enough. I feel like I’ve failed you. My generation has been consumed with self-aggrandizement. The desire to get the prize (the Oscar, the Grammy, the cash), we’re consumed with chasing castles made of sand and we’ve lost our commitment to our legacy. A legacy of real protest that involved economic boycotts that lasted until legislation was passed. We have given our power over to charlatans who degrade the name of Dr. King, Fannie Lou Hamer and Malcolm X. We’ve done that so that we can pursue our piece of the rotted American pie.
The brilliant black minds, of our time, are not in the streets. We are chasing windmills, dreams, in industries and structures who do not care about our agenda. And, yes, every filmmaker, painter, musician, lawyer, etc. that I know, is doing the work because we are trying to change how we are seen. And, as we pursue our self interests, we sacrifice years that could be spent making significant change. Change, not just for our pocketbooks, but for our communities, for humanity. For the past 10 or so years, we have watched the black male body become a commodity. We have watched black women become roped into a rape culture. And, I ask myself, what if we took all of our creative energy and protested the conditions under which we live versus going for the gold? What would America look like? Is it an either/or, I’m beginning to believe that it is.
Trayvon, you were murdered because you had black skin not because you wore a hoodie. I do appreciate the level of activism and attention that the “hoodie campaign” gave to the crime but, it just wasn’t quite right. Black men and women, who are murdered in cold blood, have one thing in common, they are housed in black skin, not hoodies. Somehow, it was safer to place the crime within the context of the ‘hoodie’, than to address it head on. We owe it to you to bring a proper understanding to your death. It is our responsibility to let the world know that you were not killed because you wore a ‘hoodie’. You were murdered within a context, a legacy of violence and inequality that promotes the idea that black men are born to die-frequently and horribly.
Every black american man that I know, has a story about being stopped, harassed or assaulted-while minding their own business. The most interesting, compelling and layered stories can be found in the Black american experience. After Troy Davis was executed, I remembered thinking about how profound his story was. His living it and our being witnesses to it. And then wondering, why, on earth, do our stories lack the same level of complexity. What gives? Where is this in Art? Where is this story? We, who are housed in black skin, in America, have the ability to stun the world with our experience. In my mind, this will save lives. There will be no excuse to believe that we are anything but human. We need to have more discussions about why “black film”, in the mainstream, is so vapid. We can write a ‘King’s Speech’. Truly, just take one of Dr. King’s speeches and build a storyline about how he came to write it, under what conditions and show the outcome. The black american story rivals all great literature.
If we are to stay on this path of self-aggrandizement, we must, at least, tell your story and the story of Troy Davis and countless others, and raise it to the level of Greek drama, to the level of Shakespeare or Eugene Ionesco and astound and induce empathy at the same time. Somehow, we keep creating product that is one-dimensional and staying within a ‘type’. We have all fallen victim to budget constraints, the ‘Sundance home movie aesthetic’ and the belief that if we just put a choir in it, it’s elevated. You have given us a charge to aim higher. And it’s not about aiming toward Shakespeare and the Greeks because it is fancying a Euro-centric experience. I’m talking about Art that challenges, questions, pains over the human condition. That can be found in a piece by Miles Davis, a work by Toni Morrison or a novel by Emile Zola, to write great, you must ingest greatness. And, greatness can be found in all colors.
We have to write better. Do better. Ask more of ourselves and others. We owe it to you, Trayvon.
Television seems to be aiming for something higher. Pulling the mask off of the “Leave It To Beaver” idea and showing how truly f***ed white america can be- a la ‘Mad Men’ or ‘The Sopranos’. But, as Ms. Toni Morrison said in a recent interview, “I was trying to take the scab off the 50’s, the general idea of it as very comfortable, happy, nostalgic. Mad Men. Oh, please…”. However tame, it’s an interesting start to the dismantling of ‘whiteness’ that blinds the culture. Although, it still surrounds us. The proper counter to it is the deep, reasoned, well thought out delivery of the black experience, of your experience. I was heartened when I saw the Miami Heat in their ‘hoodies’ but, I wondered, would they have participated in a campaign that said, “Wearing Black skin does not make me suspicious.”
There have been so many moments in your case that have stopped me cold. I will never be the same after listening to the 9-11 calls. Never. I’m forever changed. And, I will never look at President Obama the same way, again. After his statement, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”. I, finally, saw the man behind the persona. The first black president called your name, Trayvon. Can someone tell that story; the elation after the 2008 election, the cheers, the tears, the moment we were all so proud. And then, 2012 and he has to utter those words. There is a story in there that would make Shakespeare turn over in his grave. “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And, if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”
Trayvon, for you, we should not rest until everyone hears your scream.