Since the news was announced of Trayvon Martin’s death, my very good friend Talesia N. Johnson has been on the forefront of spreading news regarding the unfortunate situation and her hopes that complete racial unity can become more than just an imaginary brass ring. Following George Zimmerman’s trial, Talesia was able to summarize her feelings on how Zimmerman walking free affects not only the African American community, but also America as a whole.
The Trayvon Martin case has sparked a flame within the United States that is historically familiar to most of us and is emotionally riveting. For three weeks, the nation watched a seventeen year old black boy be tried and convicted for his own murder. Watching the trial and listening to its commentators was disheartening and discouraging for Trayvon’s supporters. For a year and a half we waited eagerly for justice to prevail on the behalf of Trayvon. We hoped that our justice system would see Trayvon and his tragic death for what it was. He was racially profiled, stalked and ultimately murdered by George Zimmerman for no other apparent reason except for Zimmerman’s claim that the teenager looked suspicious.
There is no evidence that Trayvon was doing anything that would earn him negative attention. He was simply on his way back to his father’s home to watch the All Star game after taking a trip to the convenient store. The only thing that made Trayvon suspicious was the fact that he was a young black male. Yet, Zimmerman was found not guilty on the grounds that he killed Trayvon in self-defense and was justified by Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law. After the verdict was revealed, Martin’s supporters were shocked, saddened and angry, but those who watched the trial and were well aware of the various opinions shared on television and social media were anything but surprised.
It was expected that Zimmerman would have supporters, for there are people who love him and there are others who share his views. It was also expected that his defense team would represent him to the best of their ability. While stories regarding both Zimmerman and Martin’s personal lives were being revealed through the media, the last thing we expected was to watch Zimmerman’s defense team destroy the reputation of a slain seventeen year old. Trayvon was portrayed as a thuggish teen that was constantly in trouble, violent and a drug addict. Trayvon’s few scuffles and minor troubles at school were typical childish behaviors that are discouraged yet expected of teenaged boys. Trayvon was not a crack head or heroin addict, he smoked weed – a harmless drug that is popular among teenagers of all racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds. Trayvon was demonized for being a growing boy and his learning experiences were used to justify his murder.
While many would like to think that his race had nothing to do with the way the trial was handled, black Americans and those of other races who are honest know that if Trayvon was white, his character would not have been cruelly assassinated in front of his grieving parents and the world in such a nonchalant manner. Also, Zimmerman who has a record of domestic violence, fights with the police, allegations of sexually abusing his cousin and a known racist would not have been able to convince a jury of his innocence if these facts were not disregarded in order to portray him as a defenseless man with a gun who was attacked by an aggressive unarmed Martin. If Zimmerman was black he would have been convicted. If Trayvon was white and was shot by Zimmerman (as the white Hispanic he is) Zimmerman would have been convicted. Of course if Zimmerman was a black man and Trayvon was white, Zimmerman would have been convicted. This was a race issue and a terrible injustice, yet the outcome and the feelings of resentment on both sides are not new to Americans.
The circumstances of Trayvon’s murder and Zimmerman’s trial are much bigger than Trayvon and Zimmerman. This case brought light to the dark nature of race relations in the United States. While Jim Crow Laws are no longer legal, Jim Crow hearts still exists. While segregation is supposed to be in our past, the truth is that black and whites still don’t know enough about each other. The greatest realization for African Americans in light of the Trayvon case is that although we are in an America that is more advanced in tolerance than the America that our ancestors knew, we are still burdened with feelings of “twoness” in our very own country. The term “twoness”, coined by W.E.B Dubois describes the mentality of African Americans in this country and is an explanation to our love/hate relationship with the United States.
African Americans are patriotic and loyal to the United States the same as many whites. We celebrate American holidays and traditions like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. We pledge to the flag and are in admiration of the sacrifices that were given to make this country the most powerful in the world. We mourn when terrorists attack our citizens. We sing the anthems dedicated to America. We contribute to the economy, education and entertainment. Blacks are also descendants of early Americans who have contributed and sacrificed for this country from the very beginning, even when burdened with slavery and oppression. It’s the oppression, discrimination, disenfranchisement and abuse that cause a sense of twoness in blacks. While we want to be proud Americans, the color line that has been drawn is a constant reminder to us that there is an us against them mentality amongst white and black Americans that has unfortunately been passed down through the generations. For centuries blacks have been in the position of having to prove dedication to a country that has constantly rejected black efforts, minimized great contributions and has constantly stimulated stereotypes of black life in America that are negative and have been difficult to overcome.
An example of America rejecting blacks and blacks feeling their twoness is the history of the Armed Forces. Whites have historically been reluctant to train and use black soldiers, while black men wanted to fight. Even after black men risked their lives to protect the nation that has violated and discriminated against them, many black soldiers returned home only to be lynched in their uniforms by mobs of whites. The purpose of these lynchings was to remind blacks of their place as inferiors of whites. So as a result, blacks began to realize that we are blacks first and only considered American citizens when convenient. The history of black soldiers and their struggles with the American Armed Forces is only one example of many issues that have contributed to the development of black twoness.
While this has been our history and we have made remarkable progress, these misfortunes are very much so in our present. Blacks are still angered and disappointed whenever it is evident that our civil rights are not as important as white American’s are. Marcus Garvey put things into perspective when he stated that blacks have not been failed by the American justice system because the system was not created for blacks. Trayvon’s and countless other black deaths at the hands of racist whites prove Garvey’s sentiments to be true.
Langston Hughes wrote a poem called the South that describes “twoness”. Here is a verse:
“And I, who am black, would love her
But she spits in my face.
And I, who am black,
Would give her many rare gifts
But she turns her back upon me.”
Blacks in America have an understanding of race relations that many whites don’t have. Those whites who do not have this understanding are not necessarily racist yet they are protected by having the privilege of being white and therefore they do not experience racism or need to recognize it as black Americans do. Whites who do understand the complexity of race relations are either blatantly racist or are enemies of blatant racists. Blacks who are sure that Trayvon was killed and denied justice because of his race are not playing the race card but are only identifying racism as we know it. We have to know. It is a sixth sense that is needed for our survival in America.
Trayvon’s murder is the exact situation that black parents fear and warn their children about; specifically their sons. Black men are born with targets on their backs, regardless of upbringing. This will not change until we can all force ourselves to admit that racism is still a problem in America. It is impossible for black activists to change this alone. We need whites who are honest about racism and who really believe in justice for all to continue joining in the fight to insure that all children and adults have the same rights and compassion within our society and our justice system. If the national protests in the name of justice for Trayvon Martin are foreshadowing an America that is moving towards unity amongst all races that will prevail against those who wish to enable Jim Crow practices, there is reason for optimists to keep hoping.