Sunday, July 14, 2013

Chapter 105: In Honor

When I was first learning to drive, my dad would do the supervision. At this point in time I lived in suburban Maryland, a heavily forested area, and we would take the backroads because they didn't have a lot of traffic. Eventually we pulled off the road...and someone pulled off behind us.

It was a white man. Not a cop. Not anyone with any kind of authority. But he proceeded to give my father a lecture about how dangerous his driving was. I was driving too slow for this guy's tastes. I listened to this from the car, where my dad commanded me to stay. When my father explained that he was helping his son (as everyone with a learners permit needs supervision), the man continued to berate him about the dangers of doing so. Dude was seriously aggressive about it. And my 50-something year-old father apologized.

Now, he could have told the guy to mind his own business. At which point, the white man could have killed both him and his son and gotten away with it. Or the man could have called the police...who could have killed him and his son and gotten away with it. My father grew up in the South and had seen blacks killed for far less. Because he was a responsible parent, he kowtowed, and apologized, and deferred. Getting indignant was not a luxury he possessed.

Flash forward fifteen or so years. I work in education. Currently teaching middle school. More specifically, I'm teaching a civics course about the US Constitution. I did everything in my power not to dwell too long on the history of the thing, as to not lionize slaveowner rapists like Thomas Jefferson, and move on to its relevance in the here and now of the students' lives.

As a teacher, I feel a lot of the time I'm selling kids dreams. I tell black children that going to college is the key to equality. Getting a career will somehow protect them. If only through silent complacency with this narrative, I convey to them that things are different than 100 years ago. First of all, they aren't. Second of all, the kids know they aren't. An innocent childhood is something black people don't get. Every child knows that no amount of degrees, or money, or awards, will shield you from the bullet of a racist vigilante.

In America's eyes, a young black male will always be a thug who needs to be put down. That's been my experience. I have never been a black woman, so don't pretend to know how racism affects them on an internal level.

I know plenty of people who've stayed away from the internet during the trial, to avoid the flood of racism poured on Trayvon, his family, and his friends. Personally, I really like to know what I am up against. I read the comments. There are white people out there who hate black people with a passion. Millions of them, with an all-consuming hate that cannot be reasoned with. And they just received a major victory.

There's tons of talk about this verdict, and I won't say much, because there's nothing to say. The reality of American racism is obvious. The fact that we haven't progressed since the lynching days is only shocking to white people.

Vigilance is important. We need to protect ourselves, as Trayvon tried to protect himself. Courage is important. We should not give into the fear that would make us stay off the streets we have a legal right to be on. Anger is important. It is our most potent emotion, the one that drives us to action.

Memory is also important. It is so important. Black people are constantly told to forget. Forget slavery, forget Jim Crow, forget everything that happened or is happening to us. When your enemy wants you to forget, remembrance becomes a weapon. Seventy years later, people remember the name of Emmitt Till, not the child-killing animals who murdered him.

We need to be critical, make sure that the story emerging is our story. For instance, I always found it insidious that we only learn about Emmitt Till in relation to lynching. He is put up there as the quintessential dead black child for a reason. For even the most progressive person, there's that niggling thought in their mind, "Maybe he deserved it." Yeah, that lady was probably lying, but if she wasn't, what kind of idiot whistles at a white woman in the deep south? How did he expect not to get killed? These thoughts aren't right, and they clearly don't absolve his killers, but there's that little thought that perhaps he can shoulder some of the blame.

Never mind all the black children killed prior to that, by lynch mobs, or massacres like Tulsa. What did they do to deserve getting killed? We are told to forget them, when we should honor them as we do Trayvon.

One thing I always found inspiring in the Till trial is that his great-uncle took the witness stand.
I can't imagine the courage it took for Mose Wright to even enter that hostile courtroom filled with sneering drunks, stand up there and point the murderers out in court, knowing they would be acquitted on the virtue of being white. He could have been lynched for opening his mouth and he did it anyway.

Such courage is not dead. Rachel Jaentel knew she was going to be mocked, and persecuted, and criticized for her being poor and black. She knew just like Mose Wright did that the killer would get off, because black people don't get to believe in fairy tales. But she did what was right. She should be honored as well.

I live in Oakland. There were protests after the verdict, and riots, and a name that kept coming up. Oscar Grant. Another black life ended because by racism. His name is now a rallying cry for the community. People in Oakland are already forgetting the name of the cop who executed him, just like Americans will ultimately forget some fat pansy who couldn't win a fair fight against a child. As long as there is Oakland, there is Oscar Grant. As long as there is America, there is Trayvon. Memory is a weapon. We do not stay dead.

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