My grandson is too young to know anything about the events surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin or the trial of George Zimmerman, yet the outcome of the trial may have a significant impact on his life. He’s too young to watch the news and frankly doesn’t care about it unless it concerns his favorite character, Elmo, after all he’s not yet 2 years old.
He started talking about six months ago, his first intelligible word was ‘Hello’. He understands it is a greeting so he uses it constantly, whenever we’re walking down the street or through a store he says hello to everyone he sees and will continue to say it until they respond to him. Because he is still a baby and very personable, he almost always gets a smile and hello back from the people he greets. Sometimes, people ignore him, or look the other way, but to date I’ve never noticed any anger or hostility or fear directed his way.
Right now when people see him they see a cute, well-dressed little boy with a winning smile and engaging personality, his blackness is a matter of minimal significance. Unfortunately, I know at some point that will change. At some point – I’m not sure at what age – people will look at him and the first thing they’ll see will be his color and everything else about him – his smile, his openness, his intelligence, his desire to engage – will be filtered by their view about his color, whether they find his very existence menacing and they will act accordingly. This fact is not new to me, it’s something I’ve thought about ever since his birth but the events of this weekend have elevated that occasional thought into a real worry.
At what age does a black male become a threat in America? Is it 15, 10 or is it as young as 5? I know police have not been hesitant to handcuff and arrest young children and treat them like criminals. The following picture is seared into my memory:
At what age does a black male become a threat? I wanted to believe that we are no longer a country that sees all black males as potentially threatening but that’s a belief not grounded in reality. The reality is we are a country where a substantial percentage of the population sees black males (particularly young ones) as potentially threatening despite having twice elected a decidedly non-threatening black man as President.
My grandson is being raised to feel free in all environments, to move fluidly across the broad span of socio-economic spaces in society. That’s how I raised his father and it’s how his father wants to raise him. One would think it’s admirable to raise a child that way but I’m beginning to fear it could be a liability. We can raise him to feel free everywhere but what happens when he runs into someone who doesn’t believe he is free to be anywhere? What happens when he runs into someone like George Zimmerman who believes people who look like him are ‘punks’ or criminals who should be monitored, controlled and even killed if they seem threatening. How do I protect him from that without restricting his freedom?
I don’t believe the majority of people think or act like George Zimmerman, I don’t even think the majority of white people think or act like Zimmerman. The problem with this case and the outcome of the trial is that it sends the wrong message. Instead of discouraging vigilantism and racial profiling, it served to justify and excuse it. Not just because of the jury verdict – which was not unreasonable given the evidence and lawyering – but because of the media and political conversation that has surrounded it.
Most observers have lost perspective of the human elements involved in the case – it is a tragedy for all involved. Did George Zimmerman pursue Trayvon Martin setting off the chain of events that led to the shooting? Absolutely, there’s little doubt of that. Is it possible that in the heat of a physical altercation, he legitimately feared for his safety and reached for and used his gun? Quite possibly. Did he have some racial animus? Most likely. But I don’t think he set out that night to hunt down and kill a black man and I don’t think he’s a racial supremacist. The problem is he lives in a country that empowered him to walk the streets with a loaded gun and know that if he used it against a minority male, he could rely on local police to believe his claim of self-defense.
This case is about so much more than the unfortunate killing of a black teenager by a Hispanic wanna be cop. It’s about the way people’s attachment to their right to own guns has become more important than others right to live without getting shot. It’s about a political culture where hatred of your enemy (Obama) would cause one to be dismissive and hostile to grieving parents and suggest their innocent child was responsible for his own death. It’s about a society that accepts without question white fear of blacks and is blind to black fears of whites despite centuries of whippings, lynchings, beatings, jailings and state executions. And despite all the talk of a “national conversation about race” I don’t think too many people are ready and willing to talk openly, honestly and listen to the other side.
I think the best outcome we can expect from this particular case is to use it as a barometer of how hot racial tensions in the country have become and a road map of the institutional changes we must make to avoid similar outcomes in the future.
My hope is that my grandson will never encounter a George Zimmerman but the question of when does a black male become a threat is one I have to learn the answer to. Why? So I can prepare him in advance for the day he walks up and says hello to someone and they look away in fear……..
It’s 6:15 pm on Thursday, June 25th and I just heard the news that Michael Jackson has died. Apparently he had a heart attack in his LA home and was rushed unconscious to the hospital. Of course the media wasted no time in bringing up all the gossip and innuendo that surrounded his later life and focusing on questions regarding his sexual proclivities and personal idiosyncracies. Once I allowed the truth of the news to sink in, I could not help but feel a great sense of loss. I remember the year the Jackson Five burst on the music scene – it was 1969 and the hit singles “I Want You Back” and “ABC” played regularly on my favorite radio station – WWRL. I was just starting high school and listening to the latest hits and learning the newest dance steps were an important part of my school based social activities. We marveled at this new group of young men with great moves and a great sound and were astounded that the best performer was also the youngest. I’ll never forget the first time I heard Michael sing, “I’ll be There” – his voice was so beautiful and mature, it seemed impossible such music could be coming from someone so young…………
For the next twenty years Michael Jackson, his family, their music and careers were always in the background of my life. I remember clearly the night of the Motown 25th Anniversary show when Michael performed Billie Jean and did the Moonwalk for the first time on television. It was the main topic of conversation the next day – everyone asked the same question – “Did you see Michael last night?”, “Yeah, those moves were BAD!!!!”, “How did he do that?”, “What’s up with the white glove?”. And so it was with Michael Jackson – he was always more than the sum of his parts, his singing, dancing, stage presence were surpassed by none – he was a master at his craft – making music – making us happy and letting us live out our fantasies thru him.
Like Michael, I was raised in the Jehovah’s Witness’ faith so I understood the deep conflict created between his religious beliefs which eschewed all “worldliness” and his status as a “pop star” and icon from the age of ten years old. This tension between his spirituality and physicality played itself out in many ways, not least in the behavior which led to the allegations of pedophilia which dogged him during his later life. It’s hard to adhere to a fundamentalist faith while living in a hedonistic environment – I think his parents did him a disservice by not providing him better coping mechanisms. Despite the role of his religious and family upbringing, there are many factors about Michael Jackson’s life and death that are a reflection of the arc of American culture over the past twenty-five years.
It was clear from the earliest days that Michael was the star of the family – his talent was so enormous it could not be contained – nor could it be kept within the confines of a family group. It was no surprise when he elected to leave Motown and begin a solo career – his first solo album “Off the Wall” only confirmed his genius in doing so – it was far better than anything he’d produced as part of the Jackson Five. Then came the famous performance at the Motown Reunion event – we all watched because we wanted to see him performing again with his brothers not realizing the real treat of the evening would be his solo performance of ‘Billie Jean’. That performance and the album that followed – Thriller – cemented his claim as the greatest performer of his generation and lifetime. It would be great if that was all he would be remembered for – his great talent – his commitment to excellence and his humanitarian commitment to peace and love – especially for the sick and destitute children of the world. Children who like him, were unable to experience the joy and carefree space we associate with youth.
Unfortunately, Michael Jackson’s name will also be associated with the many bizarre events that characterized the last two decades of his life. From the numerous plastic surgeries that left him looking like a mutilated wax version of his former self with badly bleached skin to match his overly straightened hair to the allegations of improper sexual behavior culminating in the trial where he was accused of being a pedophile. That trial like the O.J. Simpson trial – was a total media circus – even though he was acquitted of the charges in many ways it marked the end of Michael’s public life. He was never the same after that event – his descent into obscurity accelerated to its dramatic climax today. It appears he died while in the midst of attempting a career comeback – I for one am glad he died in the effort rather than in the aftermath of failure.
Michael Jackson wanted to be a star and he achieved that goal – well beyond his wildest expectations. What he discovered too late is that stardom can be its own prison, from which there is no parole or reprieve. A glass bubble in which every foible, eccentricity and personal weakness is magnified and spotlighted for public scrutiny and judgment. And judge him we did, the marriages, the adoptions, the Peter Pan-like fantasy world he created and inhabited at his Neverland Ranch in California. His denouement seemed to follow the color of his skin – as he went from a handsome black man to a somewhat spectral looking nearly-white man, he seemed to slip further away from reality, ultimately a victim of the fame his family had programmed him to seek but offered no protection or support from………….. There’s more I want to say but the words that come to mind seem insufficient, so I will end this post with a song from one of his recent albums – Invincible (too bad he wasn’t) the song is entitled – Heaven Can Wait - but apparently not long enough……………….. Heaven Can Wait