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. 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. He had 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?
Before I became a filmmaker, I was a crisis intervention counselor. So, I do have experience assisting others during extremely traumatic events. We are experiencing a collective trauma. It is important that we take care of ourselves, during this time. It is important that we listen to and care for the specific pain that black males are experiencing. It is important that we tend to the pain that we experience as black women who love black men. And, it is of utmost importance that we pay close attention to the experience of our children.
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. I would then help them feel safe, acknowledge the places that they are safe (for example, in your arms). I would remind them of how extraordinary they are. Because, yes, my child would be extraordinary. Aren’t yours? And, wasn’t Trayvon?
In lieu of having children and understanding how deep this cuts for we adults, I am also 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 kitchen (another safe space for me).
We told them what happened and the moment went from laughter to a serious silence. 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. They made it clear to those men, that their behavior was not allowed in our town. I grew up in a town where a bridge goes up to let boats pass. It is a wonderful town. I travel a lot but it remains my favorite place on earth. 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, aunts and cousins laid the foundation for how I would respond to such disturbances. With that one incident, they taught me to be fearless.
What I need to say to you is, “I’m sorry, Trayvon. I truly am.” As a young adult, I became an Activist. 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, could not get this film made fast enough, could not 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 ignore the example of Dr. King and the movement who taught us, very clearly, that economic boycotts bring about change. None of the current leadership calls for any significant economic boycotting. Ask yourselves- why. Yet, they will call for a peaceful march in a hot second. What about real protest? Something that has legs? Something that will produce significant change for your memory, Trayvon and the memory of the countless others who died, unjustly, before you?
We have to look at the heart of the issue here. Zimmerman profiled Trayvon as a thug. The defense team painted Trayvon as a thug. And, it seems, the jury believed this foolish notion when the evidence spoke otherwise. The heart of the issue, in this case, is black male representation. It is about how black males are portrayed in the culture. We have to attack the heart of the negative portrayal of black males in the media. Certainly, it may not influence the rabid racist. But, we have to change this proliferation of imagery of the black male thug.
How do we do this? How do we create a protest that attacks this at its heart? What would the film industry do if, for one year, we decided to boycott hollywood films that do not feature black people in significant, respectable roles? It’s just an idea. I am trying to think of something that takes care of our children, offers them new ways of seeing themselves and lets the media environment know- we are not going to accept the ‘thug imagery’ anymore.
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 last 10 years, we have watched the black male body become a commodity. We have watched black women become imprisoned in rape culture. And, I ask myself, what if we took all of our brilliant, 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 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’. 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.” 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 thought about how profound his story is. His living it and our being witnesses to it. And then wondering why 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 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 choose to stay on this path of self-aggrandizement, we must, at least, tell the story of the range of our experiences. Tell the story of Troy Davis. Tell the stories of our existence outside of the inner city. Tell the stories of our life in america with the complexity and depth that we know it holds. We must understand that our stories are as rich as Greek dramas, as unrelentingly humane as Shakespeare’s plays and as absurd as a Eugene Ionesco play. Our stories astound and induce empathy at the same time. We have to fight against films that are one-dimensional and stay within a ‘stereotype’. These images are creating a culture that gives permission to people to devalue and murder us.
We have 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. Trayvon, 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. A depth and nuance that can be found in a piece by Miles Davis, a work by Toni Morrison or a novel by Emile Zola. To write great, ingest greatness. And, greatness can be found in all colors.
We have to write better. Do better. Demand better from the purveyors of our images. We must fight against the tyranny of myopic black representation. We owe it to you, Trayvon.
Television is 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, in an interview about her novel “Home”, said, “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, ‘Mad Men’ and others shows, at least, start to the dismantle the notion of ‘whiteness’ that blinds the culture. At the same time that we are dismantling this false notion of “whiteness’, we must demand a deep, reasoned, well thought out delivery of the black experience.
Trayvon, I watched every day of the trial. I needed to bear witness for your short life. There were many moments that have stopped me cold. The first was hearing your cries in the 9-11 call. I will never be the same after listening to your screams. Never. I’m forever changed.
And, Trayvon, the first black president called your name. I was moved by President Obama’s powerful words; “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” President Obama was lifting you into another level of black representation with those words. He took you out of the context that Zimmerman placed you in, that night, and lifted you to the heights that you carried within you. Our challenge is to bring forth the complexity of this story; the elation after the 2008 election, the cheers, the tears, the moment we were all so proud. And then, 2012 and our first black president has to utter those words. Yours is a story that would make Shakespeare stand up 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. And, see you as the pilot that you wanted to be.
**since writing this piece, I am excited to see that ‘Fruitvale Station’ is out (haven’t seen it, yet). and, I am excited that Ava Duvernay is directing ‘Selma’.** Forward without fear!