Last weekend, I was in Prospect Park in Brooklyn on the National Day of Unplugging, sitting on the grass with a study group during a smartphone-free day. We were lulled, sun-warmed and well-fed, into a quiet, mellow circle, heads down as we read from a shared handout. At one point I turned my head and saw a young black kid, maybe fourteen, a boy in a tracksuit, standing quietly over us, waiting for our attention. He apologized for interrupting and then read from a sheet of his own, politely telling us about the fundraising efforts of his school, the Bronx Academy of Letters, to get a climbing wall for their gym, would we be interested in donating? He was taking donations now, or we could go to the website. Our group leader explained that we were in the middle of a discussion, and I asked to repeat the website address and promised him I’d donate (it’s 5toclimb.com, and I did). He said thank you and moved on. He seemed like a good kid.
He seemed like a good kid, which reminded me of another good kid, of course – Trayvon Martin, whose name we all now know because he’s dead, shot and killed in Florida just over a month ago, unarmed, carrying a pack of Skittles and an iced tea, wearing a hoodie. And his skin color. According to reports, the killer, George Zimmerman, was a self-appointed neighborhood-watchman-zealot, highly suspicious of black people and highly suspicious of this black person. Zimmerman called 911, who told him to stand down. He ignored them, and pursued the unarmed young man in the hoodie. Some sort of scuffle ensued. Then he shot and killed him. Details in between are murky, largely because the police didn’t arrest Zimmerman nor really investigate in any way. After all, Zimmerman had claimed self-defense about the killing of an unarmed kid that he’d pursued against the orders of 911 dispatch. Apparently in Florida you can totally do that. I’m sure it would have happend just the same way if the shooter had been black and the victim had been white.
The kid in Prospect Park was not wearing a hoodie, but that’s not the point. He was wearing his skin, and by that skin will for the rest of his life be judged, in a way that I will not. Hoodie or no. Nearby, a young African-American family was out for a walk and the kids zigzagged around us, chasing each other and yelling joyfully. One was a little boy of about four. I looked at him and thought of Trayvon Martin, too, and about what it means to be a little black boy. It had not really occurred to me before this. But then I read Danielle Belton‘s incredibly affecting piece on the subject, on the burden of being “good” for young black kids, and the promise of safety that’s supposed to bring. Don’t make trouble and you won’t invite it. From Danielle:
[W]hen I was young my parents told me I had to be the best to make it in this world. Averageness was something only the white and the male could afford and as a black woman, I was neither. You had to take pride in how you dress and how you spoke and how you behaved…You had to be “good,” because good things happen to those who are good and bad things happen to those who are bad.
…If your son doesn’t listen to hip hop, goes to the church camp, gets A’s and Bs in school, is polite, says “sir” and “ma’am,” if he’s a good kid, he’ll be safe. That’s the bargain black parents make with their children. If you are “good” the gangs and the violence and the racism won’t get you. You will be safe. You will live to see 25. You will have a great life. Opportunity will abound for you. We will be proud of you. The community will be proud of you. You will be Barack Obama and Michelle Obama and life will be beautiful if you just want it enough. Just be “good.” Be good, Trayvon Martin. Stay in school. Listen to your parents. And you’ll be safe.
But that’s a lie. No one came make you safe. No one can save you for that day some sick person just decides you’re the bad guy because you’re black and carrying a bottle of ice tea and some Skittles and he self-appointed himself neighborhood watch and some black teenage boys aren’t good, therefore ALL BLACK PEOPLE ARE NOT GOOD. And you are a black person. And you’re a boy. And you had on a “hooded sweatshirt.” So, you’re dead now.
That’s some heavy stuff. Jarring to think about while watching cute little 4 year olds run around a park in the sunshine. But inescapable, now. For them, and their parents, there’s also the need for articles like this: “How to Talk to Young Black Boys About Trayvon Martin: Eight talking points about the potentially fatal condition of being black.” There are rules, like Jonathan Capehart wrote about learning in his youth, like “don’t run in public” (lest it looks suspicious), “don’t run while carrying anything in your hands” (someone might think you stole something) and “keep your distance from white women on the street” lest someone think you’re after her purse, or worse.
I’ve spent the last week since all this noticing hoodies. Turns out, wow, they’re everywhere. On kids on the subway after school. On techies at a casual East Village bar. On the dude I hung out with last Tuesday night. On some black teenagers horsing around by my corner bodega, having not gotten Geraldo’s memo. I now notice the hoodie, and the wearer, where I never did before, and find myself thinking about a kid with iced tea and Skittles.
Race hasn’t dominated the national conversation like this since the 2008 election. It has not been explicitly part of the Obama White House agenda — though of course, implicitly it’s there all the time for the president who, if he’d had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. Implicitly, too, it’s been present in the pushback against President Obama, from the inchoate “we want our country back” rallying cry of the Tea Party to the nutty birth-certificate flap (really, Donald Trump?) to arguably the maybe-sinking of the Health Care bill in the Supreme Court this week (by many accounts really about politics and the President).
And meanwhile as The Hunger Games kills it at the box office, weirdly one of the biggest storylines coming out of it is the controversy over the fact that Rue is black. Real tweets, per Anna Holmes in the New Yorker: “Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the little blonde innocent girl you picture,” and “Call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad.” These things are not unrelated to George Zimmerman’s reaction to a black kid in a hoodie.
There are other dangers to watch out for, especially if I’m a Jew in Toulouse or wearing a hajib in San Diego. There are the dangers of just being a woman, which is inherently more dangerous than being a man. The world’s a scary place.
But even so, I’m white. So it is my luck and my privilege not to worry about the potentially fatal color of my skin as I sit in a sunny park on a Saturday — or at night, wearing a hoodie. If it’s your luck and privilege, too, try to remember that. I’m sure you will. You seem like a good kid.
- No Apologies: On The Killing Of Trayvon Martin And Being “Good” [The Black Snob]
- How to Talk to Young Black Boys About Trayvon Martin [Time]
- Trayvon Martin, My Son, And The Black Male Code [AP]
- Your Guide to the Idiotic Racist Backlash Against Trayvon Martin [Gawker]
- White Until Proven Black: Imagining Race in Hunger Games [New Yorker]
- 5 to Climb [5toClimb.com]