Personal essay — Social commentator and author Touré's conversation with Trayvon Martin's mother triggered reflections on the fear of black bodies, his own upbringing and what this all means for his son.
In her new role as a neo–civil rights icon, or a modern black tragedy icon, Sybrina Fulton moves lightly, but with a steely face. I met her a few days ago, when I was moderating a panel that took place the night before the celebration of the anniversary of the March on Washington. I began by asking her how she was. She deflected the question both times I asked, saying her feelings were not relevant, that the movement, the effort to ensure that her son did not die in vain, were all that mattered. However weary or sad she might be, it was unimportant. This was a vocalization, I thought, of the stony face and the selflessness that attends what may feel like an extended out-of-body experience for her. My impression was that she is still in mourning, and still adjusting to her role as an accidental part of history. She didn't ask to be thrust onto the national stage.
That said, it's the remarkable way she and her husband breathed new life into Trayvon's lifeless body by sending the networks photos of their son on horseback and on skis, photos that showed he was no thug, and by maintaining great dignity at rallies around the country that made many think, if his mother is that regal in this moment of agony, then her boy must be worth supporting. So she was complicit in becoming a symbol; it was a choice, albeit in a moment when she probably felt she had no choice.
But when Sybrina talks about her late son — not the idea of him or the abstractions swirling around the memory of him, but of the flesh-and-blood boy she raised — well, then the grim determination melts away. That's when her face lights up as if there's a bulb inside. I asked her who Trayvon was and she smiled as she said he was a playful and childlike boy, still quick to kiss her and sit on her lap. She said he was an innovator and that he wanted to become an aviation mechanic. He is still a real person to her. For the rest of us, Trayvon is a symbol. He is, for many, a symbol of the killability of black men — how they can be murdered only to have the system shrug and wonder aloud if they deserved to be killed. A reminder for many that we are vulnerable, because young black men in particular are seen as threatening. From a distance, George Zimmerman deduced that Trayvon was a criminal with a gun who was on drugs; he told the 911 operator about the trifecta of black male stereotypes. He is a symbol of how this hyper-partisan nation can seize on the killing of a boy and turn it, too, into a political football — a cause for the left, which saw itself as protecting a racially profiled person of color, and a cause for the right, which saw itself as protecting a person of color wrongly accused of being racist who had used his Second Amendment rights to protect himself from a black thug.
Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall once reminded his fellow justices that there is no "war on drugs" exception in the Bill of Rights. He said this because he saw them constructing one. There's a slew of policing tactics and norms that exist outside of the Constitution, or at least outside of the normal American expectation of privacy, equal protection and freedom from illegal search, that exist in order to police black men: Stop and frisk, the policy that institutionalizes racial profiling; stand your ground, which deputizes citizens and allows white people to feel comfortable using a gun anywhere and anytime they feel threatened; mass incarceration, the way the war on drugs warehouses millions for nonviolent health choices, i.e., smoking marijuana, are but some. Whites and blacks use and sell drugs at remarkably similar rates, yet blacks are over-policed, over-prosecuted, over-convicted and over-sentenced, which helps police departments and the prison industrial complex make money and helps certain politicians get elected. It also perpetuates and burnishes the image of black criminality as if that were the greatest threat to white safety, thus feeding the mind of someone like, say, George Zimmerman, who looked out of his car at a Rorschach — a black boy alone in the distance — and saw not just a boy walking home but a criminal who did not belong in the neighborhood and who was surely up to no good. Because other blacks have committed crimes, then it was easy to assume that this boy, too, was a criminal. Even though the prisons are filled with black men, Zimmerman said, "They always get away." So he followed.
This fear of black bodies persists despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of killing is intraracial. Year after year, around 85 to 90 percent of people killed are killed by people of their own race. Anti-racism educator Tim Wise points out that white people are six times more likely to be murdered by a white person than by a black person. The percentage of white Americans who will be murdered by a black person in a given year is 2/10,000ths of 1 percent. But fear of a black man is much more effective political fuel. It allows you to sell guns to protect yourself. It allows you to rail against the welfare state — why should your hard-earned money be redistributed to lazy criminals? It makes the war on drugs and tactics like stop and frisk seem sensible. It makes voter suppression laws seem righteous. It makes politicians who proclaim themselves tough on crime, who promise to protect you from the Willie Hortons out there, seem fair.
Into this matrix walked Trayvon and George, into this swirling fear of black bodies and the pride of the right to bear arms and the apprehension of a stranger in the night. They stepped out of a world of de facto segregation, a world where many of us don't know people of other races. A recent Reuters poll found that 40% of white people report no nonwhite friends and 25% of blacks report no nonblack friends. This social segregation is most pronounced, the poll finds, in the South. We have two Americas existing side by side; Trayvon and George met at an intersection, and together they stepped into history.
This is a history that can be scary for blacks because it so often adds up to the message that our bodies are worth less and that we have to manage the fear of black bodies that others feel. In my childhood home, growing up, my parents taught me that when I was out in the world it was my responsibility to mollify others, to let them know I was no danger. I was told not to run when I didn't have to, to keep my hands out of my pockets in stores, to be pliant if I was ever stopped by the cops. No matter how much time has passed since then, these are the same lessons I have to pass on to my son because they were vital to my survival, and they'll be vital to his. Such is the double consciousness that Dubois spoke of so long ago: We must hold two conflicting ideas in mind at once – we must remember that we are powerful and full of potential, and yet we must also know that others may not see us that way. That's how my father learned to live after Emmett Till's killing and how we continue to live after Trayvon Martin's killing.