Written by Drew Hart
Tuesday, 23 July 2013 00:00
I have been asked to explain why the black community is so frustrated by the verdict in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman trial. On one hand, from my vantage point, the frustration ought to be obvious to anyone who is familiar with the black experience in America. However, I also know that we still live in a deeply racially segregated society which has especially fragmented knowledge and awareness of the lived experience of African American communities within the consciousness of dominant culture. This lack of rubbing shoulders in meaningful ways, along with the forgetfulness and inability to contextualize the present time with the long ongoing realities that brought us up to this point, results in nothing more than a disorienting confusion for some around why people have responded so profoundly to Trayvon Martin’s killing.
Therefore, what seems obvious to those within the black community, and to many people around the world who have watched this case with curiosity, still remains blurry for many who are a part of the dominant culture and have the privilege of not needing to understand the deep ongoing pains and concerns of the only people group in America to be brought to this land not seeking freedom but rather bound by the dehumanizing chains of American chattel slavery. To not know or care about the actual frustrations of African Americans, and to choose to make straw men arguments rather than to be disciplined in actually hearing the voice of those that cry out, leads us to our current question: ‘Why are black people responding now with such frustration?’
It was 1981, in Mobile, Alabama, when Michael Donald (an African American) was walking home and was randomly chosen and abducted by two white men. He was terribly beaten. Eventually, they fulfilled their purpose in being there for the night by tying a noose around his neck and lynching him. This is generally considered the last recorded lynching of a black man in the United States.
But we must remember that, even after slavery ended at the end of the 19th century and we moved into the 20th century, a long sustained violence against black life erupted into the fabric of American society. Black people needed to know their place and to realize that black life was dispensable, so lynching became the perfect symbolic tool of terror. After slavery, there were over 5,000 recorded lynchings in America; young black men of course endured the brunt of that senseless violence, usually without any legal protection or pursuit of conviction by the authorities.
On top of that, let us remember Rosewood, Tulsa, Omaha, Atlanta, and Chicago. Each place had massive riots or massacres in the early 20th century in which white citizens attacked black communities, often resulting in many deaths. During all of the violence and terror, rarely were white people held accountable for their actions. Michael Donald’s lynching ended a long and painful era of unashamed overt white terrorism and violence against black people in mass, but the memory of this phase of our history is still fresh in our consciousness.
In 1955, some white men grabbed 14 year old Emmitt Till from his uncle’s house where he was visiting. They were angry because he whistled at a white woman, so they took and tortured this child, gouging out one of his eyes and beating him until his face was unrecognizable. After the torture was complete, they shot him and tied a heavy cotton gin around his neck and dropped him in the river. When the details of the crime were released, the black community was outraged. It’s not that things like this hadn’t happened before, because lynchings were commonplace in the early 20th century. It is just that people had had enough. This moment is considered to be an important part in re-galvanizing the Southern Freedom movement.
Why were people angry and frustrated? It was about the 350 years of having their lives be deemed as worthless and invaluable. It was the 350 years of having no justice in the courts. It was the 350 years of having their cries and pains be dismissed. And yes, even back in the 50s and 60s, most white people responded to polls believing that race wasn’t a serious problem. This currently seems ridiculous, but people do not realize that those same societal blinders often remain today in those that deny that race impacts American life profoundly.
When Zimmerman was not found guilty (of anything) in the courts, it was in many ways just one more slap in the face. We are a peculiar people. We were slaves in the ‘Land of the Free’. So now, Trayvon represents all those black bodies that have been violated over the past 400 years. Trayvon represents the way in which black men now are always seen with a gaze of suspicion and criminality. In my own lifetime, Trayvon represents James Byrd, Rodney King, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Troy Davis, Amadou Diallo, and many others who suffered for their unforgivable crime of merely being black in America.
Trayvon represents those who are currently being humiliated under the Stop-And-Frisk policies that statistics have proven are almost exclusively harassing (often over and over again) innocent black and Latino youth who ultimately have no weapons or drugs on them when searched. And Trayvon represents what Michelle Alexander has exposed as The New Jim Crow, for its proven discriminatory track record of locking up thousands of young black men for nonviolent drug possession and handing down harsher sentences for black and brown youth. This is so, even though serious research points to, despite our stereotypes, an equal percentage of usage and selling of drugs within the white community as that of the black community.
So, I hope it is understood that this had everything to do with Trayvon as our symbolic son and the pain that has touched every black family over and over again in every generation, for almost four hundred years. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. So Trayvon, like Emmitt Till did over 50 years ago, has sparked a people to mourn and to stand up for truth and justice in a land that has claimed those ideals but refused to practice them. That is why so many are frustrated and have had enough. And the black community is now looking to see how self professed Christians will respond to a people that are struggling, hurting, and continually violated. Will it be a response of solidarity with those on the margins like Jesus exhibited or will it be apathy?
Consider reading the post I wrote two days after the verdict which explicitly engages how my faith in Jesus offers hope despite a painful verdict. You can find it at http://drewgihart.com/2013/07/15/pain-medicine-trayvon-simon-of-cyrene-and-jesus/.
Drew Hart studied Biblical Studies at Messiah College for his B.A. and is a MDiv graduate from Biblical Seminary. He is currently a PhD student at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. He is also an associate pastor at Montco Bible Fellowship, in Lansdale, PA. He blogs at www.drewgihart.comand his twitter handle is @DruHart.