Historians respond to the killing of Trayvon Martin
Minkah Makalani, author of In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939, writes at the NewBlackMan blog:
Watching Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin fight back tears and struggle through an unimaginable range of emotions in talking about their son Trayvon Martin’s death, I recognized an expression I’ve seen only once before. It was the same look on my mother’s face nearly twenty years ago, when my brother died after being shot: empty, confused, lost. Like Trayvon’s parents, my mother had no reference for how to handle that depth of pain, for how to help her other children confront the unimaginable, while simultaneously planning a funeral and having to wrap her mind around never seeing a son she had seen nearly everyday for eighteen years.
Trayvon Martin’s killing at the hands of vigilante George Zimmerman, and my brother’s murder, are similar yet quite different. Both were teenaged black boys, and both of their killers remain free. Both were adored by their families and friends, had gregarious personalities, and their losses have left loved ones searching for answers to explain the fulsome lives cut so horribly short. And their deaths have revealed to those closest to them the fabric of a social order where the loss of black life figures less as a rupture than as an intricate weave in the pattern.
Makalani goes on to explore the perception of the black body in American society:
At the risk of a sacrilege, at issue is not whether Zimmerman was racist or hated black people. Outside the hate crime provision that would allow federal prosecution, whether he used a racial slur is largely irrelevant to the question of where and how black life fits into the structure of race in America. The claims and convoluted reasoning of Zimmerman’s father, lawyer, and friends that he is not racist, even if true, do not change the fact that Zimmerman operated within the matrices of race that deems black life a perpetual threat which only deadly force can halt. That Zimmerman was a vigilante helped bring this case into our national consciousness. But as Mark Anthony Neal explains, rather than an individual act, at issue is “the way that black males are framed in the larger culture . . . as being violent, criminal and threats to safety and property.”
I urge you to read Makalani’s full post, “Death Without Sanction or Ceremony,” at NewBlackMan.
Blair L. M. Kelley, author of Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson, approaches the subject from the classroom. She writes at Ebony.com:
When I teach about the history of the segregated South, sometimes my students remark that things are just as bad now as they were then, that conditions for Black Americans are still as bleak for too many. Often my response is that if someone were to hang me or them by that tree in front of the building, someone would come. The law would investigate. Our citizenship would matter in at least that crucial way.
This month is challenging that assumption. When Trayvon Martin was murdered for looking “suspicious,” killed without any pretense of a trial, the police failed to come. I know that they came to the scene of the crime, but they failed to come with the force of the law on behalf of this young man. His body was tested by the state with the assumption that somehow he was the criminal and needed to be screened for drugs and alcohol. It was Martin’s guilt, not his murderer’s, that was assumed on the scene. The police decided on the scene that Martin’s death was justified, not worthy of careful investigation or trial. They didn’t even bother to use his cell phone to try and contact his next of kin quickly. Instead his body would be left unidentified for days.
Read Kelley’s full post, “A New Strange Fruit: Martin’s Murder Takes Us Back” at Ebony.com.
The title of her article refers to an old ballad about lynching that was made famous by Billie Holiday. If you’re not familiar with the wrenching song, take a deep breath and watch Holiday sing it here:
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