Saturday, March 31, 2012
My Letter to Trayvon Martin
I waited too long to share what’s on my heart. When I heard your cries for help and the shots, I began to sob, both for the horror you had to experience, but also my own role in the events that led to your death. The disease that affects every American, the ugliness of racism and privilege had just taken your precious life. Through the tears I was forced to look within.
Many would say, Jessica, you didn’t pull that trigger, you’re innocent. Goodness, I live up north and you lived your all too short life way down in Florida. Such an easy copout, but you and I both know better don’t we? It’s never easy to look beyond the excuses.
Now for sake of background, so you can know me a bit better, I’m a student of many things, including history. Over the past few years I’ve set out to try as best I can to understand this divide that hurts all of us. I studied slavery, and then Jim Crow, and then the war on drugs and the use of incarceration to ensure a permanent underclass of low wage earners. I studied the lies those of us who are white tell ourselves to perpetuate slavery by another name. I’ve taken every opportunity to hear the story from the African American perspective. Myself growing up in Jim Crow America, heaven knows I’ve heard enough of the other side of the story. I did play a bit role in the civil rights protests of the sixties, but hardly sufficient.
Trayvon, in studying my own genealogy, to my horror, I learned my own ancestors participated actively in the buying, trading, and selling of human beings. I tried to imagine how anyone could justify in their minds and before their God such actions. I’ve got my own hunch. Greed for wealth and power leads many to provide their own justifications. They sew discord for their own advantage to the intellectually weak who justify their own shortcomings through the excuses of race. But in my moral sense of the universe, none of their excuses held water. Among my pet peeves, up near the top are dishonesty, lack of intellectual curiosity, and the moral weakness to the facts that lie in front of us for any who would see. The truth is, I’m not accountable for the actions of Grandfathers dating all the way to the 1660’s in America. However I am completely responsible for my own actions dating back to the day I was born.
Trayvon, as a small child one day in a Kreske store in Tyler, Texas, I wandered away from my mother to get a drink from the water fountain while she ordered us food from the lunch counter. Just as I took my first sips of refreshing water, a store employee pulled me away. “Where’s your mother?” he demanded. “Don’t you know you could catch a disease drinking at this fountain?” I pointed her way and he dragged me over to her and proceeded to lecture her. Now THAT was a mistake, because Momma bless her heart did not tolerate fools. She told him to mind his own &(^) business and leave me alone. Then momma explained to me how there were separate water fountains for white and black people. I accepted it because it came from Momma, but I didn’t understand it. I still don’t. Did black people carry strange diseases the rest of us didn’t? No logic to that at all. So that was how it was. A separate entrance at the theater, segregated schools, a separate part of town where black people lived, and the only connection between us was through that southern tradition of hiring a maid to come in once a week. Terribly unpaid, but in that environment nothing else was available.
Trayvon, growing up in that small minded hateful world, I heard the stories of the lynching of black men and women for “stepping out of line.” Places like Grand Saline and Vidor proudly claimed that no black people were there after dusk. I saw the deference walking down the street, how people spoke to African Americans as if they were perpetually children and yet as a child I was referred to as someone older. I’ve often wondered, had the civil rights movement not taken place, would I have simply acquiesced to the system as it was? I can’t answer that question, because that’s not what happened.
I once heard a story that suggested that if I took another prisoner and I handcuffed them to my wrist, were we not both really imprisoned? I see our separation in much the same way. As I watched the actions of the great Civil Rights leaders through high school, it led me to question that garbage poured into my head since early childhood. Why are we living separate lives? Why are they using clubs and cattle prods against people peacefully asking for their basic liberties? I never bought into the inferiority argument. Still most of this did not, I thought, affect me. I disagree with that premise now, but that is where I was then. I was sympathetic, but not really committed to the struggle.
It wasn’t until college that I actually was in an environment where African Americans and White folks intermingled. One after another, the myths began to vaporize, even myths I did not realize that lingered within. I remember attending a campus presentation regarding black power. So many were threatened by those words, perhaps linking into arcane fears of a insurrection going back to John Brown. It was in college where I participated in a civil rights protest at an establishment that persisted in maintaining separate facilities. But these were the days of the 60’s revolution and hippies and getting out of Vietnam. We felt of course the Black Movement would join us, but of course on our terms. I wasn’t too aware of white privilege in those days.
It was many more years before I had another awakening. I worked for an agency where most of the leadership was African American, as well as a pretty even divide among employees between African American, Hispanic, and White. In the early 1990’s as I have mentioned in earlier posts, I changed gender from male to female on my job. All of a sudden, I began to hit roadblocks. I had cleared it all with personnel, but my boss, a man from North Vietnam, was not too happy about it. A white woman, our clerk, began sabotaging my work. If I complained, I was blamed for “not taking care of it,” or “ not being a team player.” Gender change was not protected under EEOC and I was frustrated.
It was then something incredibly wonderful happened. In a workplace dominated by African American women, one such co-worker approached me. “Jessi, I see what they’re doing. I don’t understand your journey, but I damn sure recognize discrimination when I see it. “ She rallied the other African American women in the workplace, and with their support, we approached the supervisor and got him to do what was his job to begin with. In our conversations together, she opened my eyes to so much. She helped me become aware of my own privilege by virtue of the color of my skin. It was as if a veil had been lifted, and I could see the world in an entirely different way.
Trayvon, your death showed one thing abundantly for any with a speck of self -honesty. The demon of privilege is still with those of us who are White. I literally can look out my window in my mixed neighborhood in Minneapolis and see privilege and its costs right before my eyes. Law enforcement is not practiced equally. I see who gets stopped and questioned. I see who gets cuffed and how they are treated. Which brings me to the point of this letter. How am I responsible? I’m responsible when I’m silent. My debt to this world is to name it when I see it, loudly and strongly. Recently in church, the pastor asked, WWLD. What Would Love Do? The privilege is a reality in my life. It’s why I don’t fear walking down the street wearing a hoodie and yet you lost your life for it. Do I use that privilege through love? What am I doing to bring true equality into this world? What is my role in bringing a world where no one group carries privilege over another?
I don’t have all the answers, but I promise I’m looking Trayvon. I’m calling it when I see it loud and strong. My gift is the written word, and a great place to speak from a place of love. This divide over a lifetime has cost me countless friendships that could not have been. Divided communities are not healthy communities I think. So many lives have been lost, so many others traumatized. Like so many other forms of privilege, it’s a sin that has remained unnamed. I’m going to name it when I see it, talk to other white people about privilege, and use my life as a voice of healing. I can’t bring you back Trayvon, but I can sure work to be sure you didn’t die in vain.
Oh one final word and I’ll be done. I’m so impressed by your Momma and Dad, and how so many have rallied to your cause. It is said that a person is judged by the love they leave behind. By that measure, as we say in East Texas, “You done good!” It’s our job now to make the world a better place on account of your presence.