(note: I address this letter specifically to the 11th grade students who took my United States History / Reading course during the 2012-13 school year. However, I hold the same sentiments for any students in similar circumstances, and encourage its sharing to those who might benefit from it.)
My Dear Students:
The world is full of noise. It’s hard to find a place quiet enough to hear yourself think. You know all about that. It’s part of the reason why so many your age have problems reading, even when you want to. All the noise. The yelling. The music so full of anger or hunger or a pain that flees its own meaning. The gunshots. The television. Facebook. Cheap laughs. All of it distracting you from what you really want to do. What you really want to do is understand what’s going on in your own soul.
You’re seventeen. Black. You’re still coming to terms with what it all means. The history helps, but there’s a lot that’s missing. You try to put together the equation. Plug in all the variables. Seventeen. Black. 2013. Chicago. South Side. You understand each of these terms, but all together, what do they mean for you? For what kind of life you are going to be able to live. For the nature of your boundaries.
In your life, you’ve had trials. You’ve known kids who didn’t even make it to seventeen. You’ve been to funerals. You know in your neighborhood everybody is black, everybody is poor, and when the days get hot, everybody is also afraid. You understand that fear because you carry it within you as you walk to the train, hoping it’s not yet your time. You know enough and are strong enough not to be involved in a gang. But you know the gang bangers, too. And to be honest, you don’t blame them. Everybody is scared. And nobody seems to have the answers.
You also don’t blame them because sometimes it really seems like the whole world is against you and people like you. If it isn’t the bullets you hope don’t find you, it’s the cops who always see you and people like you as nothing more than thugs, ghetto people, something not worth protecting. It seems like all they want to do is protect others from you. You go to school and people are always telling you that you’re wrong. You go downtown and are met with stares. All those white faces staring at you like you’re going to rob them. Like you’re dirtying up the place. Those stares are a kind of noise, too.
Sometimes, it really does seem like the world is against you. And it’s a lonely feeling. Or it would be lonely if it weren’t so loud.
You wrote to me asking what I thought about the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. I’ll answer your inquiry now.
As you know, I came to Chicago from Florida. What you may not know is that I moved to Florida when I was thirteen. I was in eighth grade. For the first year, my family lived in an apartment. When I was fourteen, we moved to a gated community in a suburb of Tampa. We were one of maybe two black families in the whole neighborhood. What follows will not surprise you. It was an uncomfortable place. Silent, but not in a good way. I didn’t feel welcome. The guard who worked at the gate would always question us extra long to make sure we really lived there. Our neighbors didn’t speak to us kids. I lived there eight years. Not once did my next-door neighbor speak to me. They reported us for every yard violation they could drum up. My parents got fined. Once, our first or second summer there, my little brother was walking home in the neighborhood when some little white boys on their bikes rode up and called him “nigger.” In high school, I worked at a McDonald’s right next to the community. My coworkers weren’t the most educated people. Some, from the neighborhoods a few miles north of there, would talk about how the KKK chapter out there still regularly met and burned crosses in fields.
Once, I was visiting the home of a white classmate of mine whose mother lived in the neighborhood. The mother was dating a man who had made some money selling real estate. He was at the house visiting as well when he saw me and said, “Oh, you live in the neighborhood? Hey, I gave your mother a ride home yesterday. ” I must have looked confused. “Yeah,” he said. “She was walking home from work.”
“My mother works an hour away, and she has a car,” I said. His embarrassment was clear. He’d mistaken my mother for another black woman. He had apparently assumed there could not be more than one black family living in the neighborhood.
I, like Trayvon Martin, was a teenage boy in a Florida community where I felt unwanted and unwelcome.
When I first heard the details about the Trayvon Martin killing—that he was walking in a gated (white) community in Sanford (about an hour from Tampa), that he’d walked to the corner store to buy his brother and himself some snacks to watch the NBA All Star Game, that he was followed by a white man who saw him as a threat, as a problem—I, like so many who have lived like I’ve lived, felt a striking familiarity. It was too familiar. You know when you’re not welcome someplace.
Thoughts ran through my mind: If he was anything like me, he probably didn’t even want to be there. No one really wants to be where they’re not wanted. He certainly didn’t choose to be there. I know what’s it like to be somewhere you didn’t choose to be, surrounded by people who don’t want you there.
Then I thought about his parents. I remembered with how much difficulty my parents had saved in order to get and to keep us in that neighborhood. My father, at one time, worked three jobs. A nursing home administrator since I was five years old, he even picked up a job working in a Home Depot paint department. It was the first time I had ever seen my father at work without a tie. I remember how stressed it made him. And angry. He and my mother. It was a different kind of hard. Oh, we all know the story. Sometimes they wouldn’t make the bills on time. The lights would get cut off. The water too, once or twice. But they pushed to stay in what they believed was a better neighborhood because it provided the best opportunity to “get out of the rat race,” as my father would often say. To reach financial freedom. Better schools and a peace of mind you could not have in the inner city. Both my parents had grown up around violence. Like many middle-class black families, we hung onto what little we had by a thread. We were never far enough away from their memories. But we held on, in spite of not being wanted.
What I am saying is that I when I thought of Trayvon Martin, I immediately thought of a life I had known too, too well. So the pain was deep. It struck vital organs. Because—and I did not want to say it, none of us, maybe, wanted to say it—but I knew, once they did not immediately arrest Zimmerman upon the public outcry, that it was very likely that his death would mark a sort of symbolic strike against people like me—outsiders in America—and that justice would not be served.
As you know, I am a student of history. How many times have we discussed how the clear facts of the present relate to clear facts in the past? How many voices have we examined? You can trace it back to the very start.
You know that the majority of blacks who live in North America are descended from people who came to America enslaved. In the official records of the United States, they were considered property, and not citizens. The United States Constitution’s three-fifth’s clause calls them “all other persons.” You know enslavement was not limited to the South. You know it was an economic relationship, but that it required social, political, and philosophical justifications. You know it birthed American racism.
You know black people had to be de-humanized in order for enslavement to last as long as it did. To be human is to be master of your self. It is to be mind and spirit driven, and capable of solving great problems. To be human is to have unlimited potential because your creativity and your mindfulness make you in the image of God. Every human being is a universe.
To de-humanize means to rid someone or a group of people of their humanity. You know racism helped in this effort. That the few who owned slaves and had most of the power were able to keep that power over the majority of others by demonstrating to those others that they were better than these people whom they kept at the bottom. No matter how bad it got for poor whites, at least they weren’t black. You know that in many places it was illegal to teach an enslaved person to read, and that intelligent slaves often risked their lives for knowledge. To seek knowledge is human, and in that seeking they fought against their own de-humanization.
You know that after official slavery ended, the racism it created was set loose on the formerly enslaved and newly “freed” people. Reconstruction lasted a few years, and then every right of citizenship that the Constitutional Amendments following the Civil War granted blacks were systematically removed through Jim Crow laws. The right to full citizenship. The right to vote. Because they were dehumanized, it was easy to argue that they did not deserve full citizenship. And still they fought.
You know about the lynchings. About the bombings. You know that until the early twentieth century and beyond in some parts of America, it was legally impossible for a black woman to get a white man convicted for rape, but that black men who entered into consensual relationships with white women were convicted and executed, often without a trial. You know about all white juries.
You know about all the fighting black people had done to be considered full citizens during the century following the Civil War. You know they fought in segregated units in World Wars I and II. That they were often given the lowest jobs. If you think about it, you’ll also remember that in the media, they were represented at this time as thugs and punks, if not complete buffoons, or stereotypical slave roles like mammies and Jezebels. In other words, in the popular consciousness of the time, they were still dehumanized.
You know, in short, that black people in America are no strangers to being considered less than the full citizens and human beings they should be. You know this, even if you remember nothing from our history class. You know this from your own history. Your own experiences. You know this from the way you feel police in your neighborhood often target you or people like you, because they assume that if you are young and in this neighborhood, you are likely to be a criminal. You know this from what seems to be a link between poverty and being black, since so many you know are poor and black. You even know this in the fact that we still have to have this conversation, that we have not moved on, even in 2013, from the need to call each other by our racial names, because that is the first thing we are expected to see.
Epistemic closure. That’s a term coined by philosopher Lewis Gordon to describe how race becomes so central to our identities that once we know a person’s race, we are able to ascribe to that person all sorts of stereotypes, to fill in the blanks of their identity with the pre-made attributes our society has given to that person’s race (or gender, or nationality, or sexual orientation, etc.) Epistemic as a term has to do with the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge. In other words, once we know a person’s race, we close many of the questions we could have asked to really get to know who that person was.
In the Trayvon Martin case, we found many examples of epistemic closure. Remember Rachel Jeantel? Remember how quickly people were to call her ignorant because of how she talked? And if you think about it, how she talked fit into the stereotype of how black people, how poor black people, “ghetto” black people, talk. People called her names and said she was stupid, ignoring the fact that she spoke three languages and descended from the first black republic in the world. You know something about Haiti. But you also probably know plenty about being judged for how you talk. The irony is that most of the people who were closing the epistemic question on Rachel Jeantel themselves only spoke one language, and, considering many of the comments on message boards, they did not speak even that one language very well.
Many of you suspect that Trayvon Martin was killed as a result of an act of epistemic closure. George Zimmerman saw a black teen in a hoodie and assumed that that teen did not belong. He made a statement about how people in the group in which he categorized this teen—dangerous people, hoodlums, black boys—always get away. He assumed that Trayvon was committing a crime just because he was in that neighborhood. That’s not a disputed fact.
Other accepted facts are that Zimmerman pursued Martin, based on this initial suspicion, this initial act of epistemic closure. He was armed. Martin was not. There was a confrontation. There was a fight. Trayvon Martin was shot through the heart and died. Zimmerman was not immediately arrested. In fact, weeks passed before authorities saw it fit to charge Zimmerman with a crime. Zimmerman was arrested, raised money in jail, and was out on bond long before the trial began. The trial began, the evidence was shared, and he was acquitted. These are the facts.
And so what does all of this mean for your life?
As you complete your high school years, you will enter a world full of confusion. But—it is also a world of possibility. Sometimes confusion breeds possibility. It is my sincere hope that you keep in mind the struggles you have faced, and the struggles of those like you, and that you use the mindfulness of these struggles not as a crutch for half stepping, or as an excuse for personal failures, but as a reminder. It is my hope that, in reflection upon what these things mean, you realize yourself as one in a long line of those who have suffered towards the realization of the dreams that set our great enterprise in motion. I hope you remember how many suffered so that you might have the opportunity to use your God-given minds, your talents, your gifts for creation. I want you to remember them, and keep going.
This world is not yet where it needs to be. That is clear, too. But I want you to think about how you can contribute to the bettering of your self, of your community, of your nation, and of your world. And make no mistake: this is your world. You have as much claim to it as anyone else. Never let any disappointment, or any person, or any group, convince you otherwise. You learned that the words “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence were penned by a slaveowner—but that does not make them any less true.
And maybe that is the greatest lesson of all of this. When you came into my classroom, I made you agree to trust the power of your own thinking. To trust your own mind to be able to figure out the problems you face. As you go forth into your life, you must remember that this trust is the greatest gift you can ever have. You are capable. This case and the myriad others like it do not define you. Only you can do that.
I love you, I’m rooting for you, and I can’t wait to see what grand things you achieve.