It has taken me some time to regain my composure. The spectacle of Zimmerman’s trial and subsequent acquittal was the psychological equivalent of ripping a scab from a painful wound. The wound is open, and people are bleeding. I am bleeding.
But this moment with Trayvon Martin is not unfamiliar. People have been comparing his murder to Emmet Till’s murder. I recognize the comparison—a black male youth callously murdered for no reason other than the fact that he was black (make no mistake, Trayvon is dead because he was black. Race compelled Zimmerman to call the police and stalk that kid with a gun), and his killers were acquitted. Till’s murder helped to galvanize the will of the black community in the south, inspiring Mrs. Rosa Parks to defy Jim Crow, and go to jail rather than be a willing participant in the continuing narrative of white supremacy.
This moment is a familiar one. White supremacy is an old, well-worn script with character mark-ups that help society recognize the good guys and the bad guys by the language of race. It is a narrative of humanity that describes human beings in the western world as protagonists and antagonists according to unchangeable, physical features that we are born with. And this is how it worked in the death of Trayvon; white supremacy turned the tragic and appalling murder of an unarmed teenage black boy, into a justifiable claim of self-defense for a white/Hispanic man. A black kid walking home, wearing a hoodie, on a rainy evening, transforms into a dangerous thug, armed with a sidewalk, and provoking a justifiably concerned white/Hispanic citizen to shoot him to death.
This re-narrating of black identity is the work of white supremacy, and it is not new. At the turn of the 20th century, W.E.B. Du Bois described the racialized condition of blacks in America as one of being cursed to live behind a veil, with double consciousness. The result of the pre-determined role for blacks in the narrative of humanity in the west means that blacks are “born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world— a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.” (Souls of Black Folk). The veil works like a projector screen, lowered over black bodies, allowing the dominant white society to project images upon black bodies that correspond with the predetermined role of black, in the social narrative of human beings. Whites see the image projected on black bodies (by the very imaginative narrative), but real black lives exist behind the veil. The veil is the reason for double consciousness:
” It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness— an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. ”(Souls)
The notion of two warring ideals, an American, and a Negro, in 1903 for Du Bois, indicates the living breathing presence of the white supremacist story of humanity that he knew, so many years ago. Du Bois was describing the black struggle for integration and co-humanity in a nation determined that blacks must remain separate and unequal, as the antagonists in the story of human progress.
That narrative did not simply die. It is eternally young, adapting to new moments, re-narrating itself to survive in hostile environments, wounding and killing real people who get drafted into awful pages against their will. The custodians of race fixate on this narrative, to the point that full humanity is only attributed to the protagonists in the story.
Trayvon’s family knew a different story of who he was. They described him as a real-life teenage boy, a good student, loved by his family and friends, with aspirations for college and a long life. Not a thug. But to the custodians of race, that description doesn’t work. For the custodians of race, the veil must remain pulled over Trayvon’s body, to maintain the narrative, even after the boy was dead. But we must lift the veil, not rip open a wound. We must lift the veil and look at the body of a real human being. Doing so would be a first necessary move towards a new script. We need to lift the veil and look at the body of a boy, frightened by a man stalking him as he walked home at night; a man with a gun, who eventually killed a child. Perhaps that perspective will give us eyes to see the grotesque spectacle of a legal system that vindicated his murder, as a justifiable act of self-defense. But we must look and be appalled, if we are to have any chance of changing the script.