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Dearest Trayvon, I Heard You Scream (On Trayvon Martin & Representation)

Dearest Trayvon, I Heard You Scream (On Trayvon Martin & Representation)

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.

Dearest Trayvon,

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!

Follow Tanya Steele on Twitter at @digtanya. Or on facebook at Or visit

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I am an old white women and my heart ache from scratch tonight after reading your eloquently written article. I apologize for the hurt and pain that many of my race caused yours and want to ask that you and yours do look at all our white people as bigots. There are many white mothers that cried with Ms. Fulton over the loss of her boy that died an unjust horrifying death. And please ignore the negative comments to your article – it is as you have said : "some will just never get it . . ."
God bless you.


Dearest Tanya:

The next time one of your several friends asks you how they should speak to their child about Trayvon Martin's murder, why don't you answer the way any honest mother would answer: "If an adult asks you a question that you do not like, either answer it, walk away or run away. Someone asking you a question you do not like does NOT give you license to break their nose and then repeatedly bash their skull into the cement."

Oh, and one more thing, Tanya. You might want to ALSO suggest to these friends of yours that if their children like fighting as much as Trayvon did, then they ought to delete any text messages on their phones proving that fact because it won't bode well for them in court.

I'm here to help if you need any other answers to some very common sense questions.



Some thoughts while reading through:

1. He wasn't being chased.
2. A person who is bashing another person's head into the ground usually wouldn't scream for help.
3. He wasn't murdered.
4. So when your family encounter prejudiced people, instead of contacting the police, your family went after them and threatened with violence. Just like when Martin, instead of calling the police, went back and assaulted someone.
5. You say the evidence didn't show Martin as a thug, despite all of the physical evidence and testimony showing that Martin was on top, attacking Zimmerman like it was MMA.
6. You say Zimmerman killed Martin because he was black. I take it you are his therapist and hold a PhD in Psychology? No one knows what is going on in his mind, racist or not. Evidence in the case supported that he was acting in self-defense.
7. It's surprising that you claim to have watched every day of the trial, considering how many misconceptions about that night that you harbor.
8. Obama, the Great Divider, is making a run at the Top Race-Baiter crown, forever held jointly by Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. It is upsetting that this President knows so little about the law.
9. Don't forget, Obama is just as white as Zimmerman, but that's not convenient enough to generate the ridiculous media frenzy that has surrounded this.

You want to do things to get rid of the media perception of young black males? How about instead of trying to cover it up by ignoring it and boycotting movies, you stop glorifying those who glorify violent and disrespectful lifestyles, and are then made heroes of in black culture. If I were Florida, I would be glad that people like Kanye West and Jay Z won't preform there, as it would decrease exposure to all that is wrong that those types of performers present. Blacks are the ones who are responsible for creating this "thug stereotype", maybe that is where you need to start.


niggerz niggerz


Very beautifully written and inspirational. As a black artist it has certainly given me a renewed sense of purpose about what I am meant to do in America, and in the world at large.

joe jones

well i stay in gary in. in i thank that Zimmerman need to go back to jail he no what the fuck he did to Trayvon Martin in if he did beat your ass look zimmerman you is biger than him u lat him do that so you can kill him in that is fuck up (LOCK HIS ASS BACK UP)

Ronnie D.

People are way too quick to scream racism nowadaysl truth is, no one knows exactly what happened, and that will always be the truth.

Lynne Conner

BRAVO!! I suggested Economic Boycotting of Florida and received some support, and some backlash due to the economic hardship and low educational levels, the migration of Haitian and New Orleans residents to Florida, lack of employment and self-hatred. However, no one has offered any other solution than Marching…I beg people to make solutions. So I applaud you because our art is our healing, it is our answer to feed the hungry, it delivers the messages loud and clear. Thank you!


"heavy weight of 'swag', the untrusting eyes that dart about- and it saddens me"


I'm a 24 year old black male from Detroit and as soon as I got to the "untrusting eyes" part I felt my eyes almost tear up. I just want to report that I managed to recompose myself and luckily did not let a tear fall.


I feel a lot of this type of convo has all the best intentions from people who mean well, but it's preaching to the choir.

The problem now is we are in an age of New Racism, where racists refuse to outwardly admit they are bigots. All the positive representation of POC in the world does not matter, if you have caucasian law enforcement and white women jurors who like to pretend it's not the color of your skin, but your hoodie attire which makes you looks suspicious. This is a very clever strategy being used to side step civil rights abuses, and many an online mouth breather has received that memo to dismiss any charges of racism with "zimmerman never mentioned Trayvon's race/stop stoking racial fires/what about Black on Black crime in Chicago" nonsense meant to distract. These people will die before they publicly acknowledge their entitlement, which is something their ancestors had no problem doing.

There needs to be an honest dialogue about racism in this country, and it's usually Black people having it among ourselves. Soledad O'Brien needs to focus her attention on White America for once (been saying that for years), words like "race card" and "post-racial" need to be buried and yeah our president needs to stop side-stepping anything regarding race (while he calls and offers his apologies to white females who have had their feelings hurt by ignorant pundits).

Jason Low

Food for thought. All of this. I'm a parent. I'm a book publisher. The only connection to film I have is that I am a fan of the medium. But I do share the social justice aspect of this discussion. I personally want to see equality become a reality rather than an unattainable idea that might happen one day.

In the struggle for equality, what seems to be a common thread is that these struggles are segregated. The way I see it is, we all (people of color that is) suffer from the same lack of representation in all forms of media and politics. What is needed is to unite, all PoC, women, LGBT, etc. and demand the kind of societal changes that have been elusive for so long.

In my industry, we publish multicultural books. In 18-years, the number of books by and about PoC has remained stagnant, below 10%. ( see the study here: ) Lack of diversity is seen across most media. If we take the time to look outside our chosen media/focus, we find inequality across the boards.

If we are going to change things, we have to start to talk to one another and not just to people who we are comfortable talking to. My problems are truly your problems. How do we chip away at such a complex problem and get results? Talk/posting on the web is, well, just talk. Action is the next step, but it has to make sense.

The web can be used to organize. For instance, if a film is riddled with stereotypes and negative depictions of women and PoC there could be a Facebook page that tells people to boycott this film. If a TV show has racists undertones to it, the site could tell all of its users to write to the network. Depending on the size of the Facebook page's membership, how many emails gets an issue notice? 100 emails? 1000 emails? 5,000 emails? My point is we have tools that were not available during the civil rights movement that can be used as weapons for activism.

By including all groups that are currently being marginalized the percentage of the population being effected is far greater than the powers that be. The numbers are there, but if we remain in our fragmented state we will not have the power that we will need to move the needle forward.


What I got to say would easily get me arrested, easily get me branded an enemy of the state, my advice is similar to what we did back in the day during the era of the Black Panther Party. Stop waiting on the justice system to strike a meaningful crumb thrown out of justice. But it was strange to hear what one noted journalist said "The jury them selves would have shot Trayvon!


I know this is a film site so much of the solutions/focus with regards to this case will deal with the "burden of representation" arguments and improving our public image but creating art that speaks to the wide range of black experience will not help racism/prejudices go away. People will watch Fruitvale Station and be moved by it but I guarantee the same things will happen again and again even if every person on the planet watches the film.

The fight needs to go back to the courts… and stay there. The jury didn't fail the Martin family as much as the state law did. Every one is talking about suing Zimmerman – you need to challenge the constitutionality of the law on state and federal grounds. Conservatives have been chipping away at civil rights through statutes and court cases for years. Awareness, movies, and documentaries don't have the power to change hearts and minds – not for more than 2 hours. We need something more concrete in black and white and maintain our advancements. Stop being reactive. The greatest harm we've done to ourselves is assuming that since things were going in the right direction we didn't have to work so hard (or anymore) to pursue full rights and privileges of being American citizens. Racism doesn't die that quickly.


This verdict was a sad day in america. black people have always been america plaything and black life is seen as having no value. To really fight these injustices and racism, this is 5 things I think we have to do moving foward. It's more but I'm going just keep it short at 5 that I think is the most important.

1. We have to start getting involved in politics on a local area instead of just coming out every 4 years for the presidential election. Local politicians, judges, police captains, board of education members, sheriffs, these are the people you going to deal with everyday, so you need to make sure you hold these people accountable. You should know just as much or more about them than the presidentail candidates.

2. We have to start doing for self and investing in our communities, black money has to start coming into our neighborhoods instead of black money leaving and going into somebody else neighborhood making them rich. Also if non black businesses want to do business in our neighborhood they going to have to invest into the community instead of taking our money and going home and talking to us anyway like we need them or we don't demand respect, this has to stop. You do business in our neighborhood you going to have to be trade partners with us instead of just takers.

3. Education, too many young black men are falling into that hustling and I'm going to get a record deal mentality or now I want to shoot movies as a hustle or the whole I'm a hustler mentality, how many young black men have you heard call themselves that, too many is the answer. Remember less than 1 percent of artist are able to make a living off their work, I'm not saying don't pursue your dreams but get an education and do it also. A strong black middle class and small black business owners are the key to turning things around for us. The fake powers that be no this is how we going to turn things around, that's why they got too many of our young brothers trying to pursue a hustler false dream of wealth and success that less than a few is going to acheive, they show you all the sucess stories but never show you the millions that don't make it and have nothing else to fall back on but broken dreams or worst they dead or in prison, which has turned into the new plantation for black folks.

4. We have to take contol of our images on t.v. This is the biggest propaganda tool the world has ever seen. The images of black folks are the men are thugs,pimps, street hustlers, angry black men and lazy and the women are hoes, golddiggers, or loud mouth women that can't keep a man. It's no excuse why we shouldn't be putting out different images of black life. We have the tools now and the distribution networks to do this.

5. Stop believing people that have systematically kept us dependent on them economically and vilified us every chance they get are going to really help us. That why we have to do for self and make sure our money go back to us. The only way we are ever going to get treated as the same is when we buid up our own to the point we don't need them, then people will deal with you on a real level because they have no choice too, this is when america will be a post racial society.


Tanya, as you may well know, I've championed many of your posts. You've always given me reasons to smile and something to ponder. Also, in my own way (although you didn't ask me to do it) I've defended you and your opinions from those who vehemently disagreed with your assessments. Yep, when you're "right", I'd have no problem standing arm 'n arm, back to back in a bar fight with you… you and me against the world. That said, I view you as a person to love as I would a family member or little sister. A person I wouldn't have to "cloak" and/or hide my true feelings — and would defend to the bitter end.

Having said all of that, it's my hope that you take my reply as if I am a family member who shouldn't be afraid to say exactly what's on their mind. So here I go…

I didn't read this post as a sincere letter to Trayvon Martin nor as a message to your children (if you had children). Nor, based on what I read, did I believe this was written in response to your friend's question "how they should speak to their child about Trayvon Martin's murder". The post just didn't have that "feel". Also, much of the letter to Trayvon had odd and/or confusing shifts in "person".

Consequently, I've come to the conclusion that this post was another blatant example of the exploitation of Trayvon Martin and the tragedy that surrounds him. In short, it appears this post was reshaped and edited to fit a personal agenda.

Brother Imhotep Coleman

The author states: "I do not have children. And, I'm someone who refuses to raise a black child (male, especially) in the United States. Too risky."

As a father of black boys, and a by-product of proud black man, and a graduate of a black college, and a co-creator of an urban education academy, your apathy is sad. However, I'm sure we live in a nation full of people with similar stances.
The scrubs stay on the bench, and the dreamers watch from the stands, but the players get in the game.
I come from a selfless point of view. How can I help? What should be done? When and where can it be done? Each one, reach one, teach one.

No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.

What you fear, is what I love. You call it risky. I deem it necessary.

I reject your stance, and pray for your soul, and the soul of black folks.


I know what to tell your kids. Don't act like a thug, and don't attack people and you won't get shot.

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