The above text messages sent to Trayvon Martin from his father, could have been sent to me by my father. The difference is that I read two things here and only one of them is heartbreaking for me. The first is the simplest. Be good to the new people in your life, my lady, those around us now. My father’s been married three times. I can relate to this. I can understand this. The second is less simple. Given Trayvon’s recent difficulties in school at the time, suspension, etc, this takes on a different meaning. There’s a very real undertone of fear. Don’t be an ass. Be positive. We’re fools if we can’t tell that Tracy Martin was worried about his son. He was, and my father worried about me when I was 17, we fought constantly, but he never worried about me for the reasons Tracy Martin had to worry about Trayvon. The difference, and it’s an obvious one though it bears re-stating, is that Trayvon was a young Black man and I was a young White man.
From everything I can tell, Trayvon was pretty much just like any 17 year old young man. He was a house divided. He made good grades, A’s and B’s, he was cheerful, good to his siblings, in many ways he was ideal. He had all the qualities of a good boy, a boy that parents love. But he was also 17 and that means testosterone and independence and flailing and mistakes and he was making mistakes. As we all know, the world is not a virtuous place and it will layer you with an ever growing film of vice, anger, and depression if you let it. It will twist you and turn you until you are a knot, until the good boy or girl we were is just a piece of a past we can’t reclaim. But Trayvon wasn’t there. He was where 17 year old boys always are, in the middle, beautiful and absolutely at risk. In my estimation this is the root of the tragedy that was Trayvon Martin’s death. There’s an epidemic in the Black community that hardly anyone talks about and that is the staunch belief, very often factually borne out, that young Black men are going to end up dead. Note the following:
Homicide victims usually are killed by people of their own race and ethnicity. The pattern goes back at least a generation.
Bureau of Justice Statistics data show that from 1976 to 2005, white victims were killed by white defendants 86% of the time and black victims were killed by blacks 94% of the time.
Then there is the matter of who is dying. Although the U.S. murder rate has been dropping for years, an analysis of homicide data by The Wall Street Journal found that the number of black male victims increased more than 10%, to 5,942 in 2010 from 5,307 in 2000.
Overall, more than half the nation’s homicide victims are African-American, though blacks make up only 13% of the population. Of those black murder victims, 85% were men, mostly young men.
These numbers represent an epidemic for the Black community. If we take a rough average from the above numbers of 5,500 deaths a year then we what we get is 51,700 young dead black men killed by other young black men. That’s a monstrous number and there are many reasons for it. I can’t possibly tackle them all in this column and please don’t take their omission as purposeful evasion. Volumes have been written on the topic by people far more knowledgeable than I am. Suffice to say that everyone in the United States is aware of the problem. It contributes greatly to the perception among both Blacks and Whites that young Black men are more dangerous than other racial groups. It contributes to White racism, reinforces the already bigoted. This is despite only about 6% of those violent crimes being committed against non-Black racial groups. It means that in many cases White people don’t trust Black people. It also means that many Black people don’t trust Black people.
What I’m getting at here is that Tracy Martin had every reason to be afraid for his son. He was right to be afraid for him and the Black community has every reason to be tearing their clothes right now. In Trayvon Martin we had a boy who was good hearted, made good grades, and was going to go to college. And if he’d been afforded that time on this Earth he would have grown into a man. He would have left behind that crossroads that all young men face between honoring the heart of the boy he was and allowing the world to smother that boy out. He would have become the man that the Black community needs. He would have taken his place among hopes realized and he would have beaten the odds. This is the knife that cuts the deepest. In a community that is plagued by violence and fear, losing a young man with so much promise is devastating. In interviews on television I can hear it just under the repetitive Q&A sessions, “Even him? Even a young man like him? What chance do we have? What chance does my son have?” It makes me wish I was God, that I could wipe the slate clean and bring everyone to my chest. Because, to be sure, for Blacks the slate is full. A long-term and summarized rundown:
West Africa: The more powerful tribes discover that they can become wealthy and powerful if they help White slavers fill their boats. They do so with gusto. If you are a smaller tribe you are attacked and taken and sold. Your people are essentially wiped out or assimilated. You’re sent to the New World. Slavery in the New World persisted from the early colonial days until the Emancipation Proclamation and even after, hundreds of years. I don’t attribute a definite stopping point because there wasn’t one.
Freedom: Congratulations, now go do the best you can. Hate and resentment against Blacks was vicious and it was everywhere. Most Blacks could not read. They didn’t own property. They didn’t know how to conduct business for the most part because they’d been enslaved for hundreds of years, generations and generations. In many ways it was like dropping a toddler by the side of the road with a quick “good luck, kid.”
Jim Crow and Segregation: Separate but equal, while morally reprehensible, achieved one thing. There was a Black economy. There were Black businesses that thrived. There was a culture that grew that was specific to Black Americans. There was pride in those things despite it being an island in a culture of oppression. When the US ended segregation the same thing happened to the Black business community that happened to every small downtown American business when Wal-Mart came to town. They were all eaten. This was, in many ways, ‘Freedom’ part 2. “Congratulations, you’re even freer now. Good luck finding a job or owning anything of any value.” While clearly a moral victory, desegregation also had the effect of destroying the Black economy.
The Ghetto: Poor people had always lived in ghettos in the US but in the latter half of the 20th century the federal government began creating their own ghettos in the form of federally constructed and subsidized housing. Make no mistake, while the intentions behind this may have been good, what it achieved was a well painted refugee camp in many respects.
The 80s Crack epidemic: Don’t underestimate this. It’s often forgotten today but crack cocaine completely destroyed the Black family in urban communities all across the country. The Black family is still recovering.
Those are the broad strokes and that’s the Slate. It’s full from top to bottom. Every time Black American’s have come close to finding an identity that they’re proud of the rules get changed, mostly for the better, but something happens and it always flips over the chessboard. No one can live this way. It will drive you insane. Groups of humans need time and history to know who they are. Black Americans barely have either. The slate is full of setbacks, poor and racist policy decisions designed to keep Black communities isolated, violent oppression, and now it’s full of self destruction. That the Black community in America even exists in any recognizable form in America is amazing, truly, it’s an astounding feat. That’s a tsunami of handicaps to try and keep your head above to say nothing of finding the shore. It’s also death by a thousand cuts and I can’t help but believe that every Black man in America knows this. I can’t help but believe that Tracy Martin saw the worst possible outcomes for his son in his dreams and that he worried about them daily. Who can live happily this way while trying to deal with the layers of generation upon generation of horror and disappointment? And so when I read the simple statement of a father trying to playfully reach his son I don’t hear “don’t be a donkey.” I hear a hundred million souls, dead and living, howling and begging “for the love of all that is and might be good in this world, live, please live.”