Like millions of others, I have been following the fight to bring George Zimmerman to justice for racially profiling, stalking and fatally shooting 17-year-old unarmed featherweight Trayvon Martin in late February.
During what has become a thrice-daily ritual, I have watched an unbruised and easily breathing Zimmerman remain upright immediately after he was allegedly attacked by Martin. I have heard the audio of the 9-1-1 dispatcher telling the self-appointed neighborhood watch captain to quit following Martin. I have watched Martin’s parents ask for the most rudimentary symbol of justice, an arrest, and posted my hoodie shot in solidarity.
Up until the Zimmerman camp unleashed their epic victim-blaming assault, my pie-in-the-sky butt still believed that they would admit that Trayvon Martin didn’t deserve to die, that his corpse should not have been drug- and alcohol-tested, that his parents should not have had to collect him from the morgue.
I’m not dumb. I’ve read lots of books, articles, poems, prose, body language, Morse code, and smoke signals. But, apparently, I still haven’t gotten it through my nappy head that blackness and maleness equal a criminality punishable by freelance execution.
At the risk of self-indulgence, I’m going to tell you that as the Martin horror continues I am grieving my own, seemingly unrelated loss. An aunt of mine, who manufactures sanity, joy, common sense and the wickedest jokes, is dying of lung cancer. I first cited this Maat-practicing, ‘hood eccentric sweetpea in an early column about black danger-womb billboards. Lately, while imagining the world without her in it, I’ve been worrying about her son.
My cousin just turned 28—the same age as George Zimmerman. When he was about five, this dark brown, big-eared child with hula hoop eyes drew on his clothes, made swords out of everything and cut the familial phone cord because he needed something to tie on the Superman cape he’d crafted out of a sheet. Yes, it would have been culturally acceptable for my aunt and uncle to beat some sense into this bonkers black boy. But they didn’t—she didn’t—because they wanted to preserve his spirit.
Today, my cousin displays a quality too many black men I’ve met, liked and loved attempt to conceal: He has a sweetness about him. To be clear, he is not a “punk.” (You see how I have to put that in writing?) But he certainly doesn’t conform to prevalent media images of aggressive or feckless, extra macho and rigid, heterosexist and woman-juggling black men. Given his sweetness and profound weirdness, it would seem that my cousin would be exempt from the Bigger Thomas, O Dog or even Stringer Bell labels.
But still, my cousin is black and big to boot. If he were to walk around Trayvon Martin’s Sanford, Fla., Oscar Grant’s Oakland,* Sean Bell’s Queens or James Byrd’s Jasper,Texas, he would be threatening to fatally anxious, white-identified men brandishing unsorted feelings and 9-millimeter pistols.
It is sad how this country continues to sweat black men. Their physicality, sexuality, language, labor, creativity, survival skills and behavior are always under scrutiny. And that’s how 150-pound, unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin ends up bleeding on the concrete while his killer hides and scrounges around for sympathy.
That’s how men like my cousin get trapped in limbo—unable to get the fringe benefits of prescribed black masculinity but still carrying the tangible risks of it.
And that’s why his mother, my very sick aunt, can’t go home knowing that her only child won’t have his chest blasted open by a white supremacist thug who gets to be the desperado and the victim.
*Post has been updated since publication.