There is dramatic moment in the film Cadillac Records, when musician Muddy Waters, portrayed by Jeffrey Wright, has just watched the body of fellow musician Little Walter (Columbus Short) taken away to the morgue. Little Walter was more than Waters' wingman -- he was critical to how Waters literally heard himself in the world. Trying to come to terms with Little Walter's death, Waters walks upstairs into a bathroom, off-screen, and utters a series of bone-chilling howls that sound like death itself. It is simply the most arresting moment in the film, and tellingly a moment in which the sounds of death are disembodied from the Black man who is so tortured by the loss of a brother.
I immediately thought about that scene in the film, hearing the 911-tapes that capture -- unquestionably in my mind -- the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, at the hands of George Zimmerman. In a world in which Blackness is visually over-determined -- both as hyper-visible and invisible -- there is no ocular meme more pervasive in American society than that of the so-called violent and dangerous Black male, who is always already in need of pursuit, capture, incarceration and inevitably extermination.
So powerful is this script, that the fact that such levels of surveillance -- from the classroom to the interstate -- is un-American, is rarely disturbed in the minds of most Americans, including far too many Blacks. That more than a few corporations, often with direct input from Black men themselves, have turned the image of the menacing Black male into a cottage industry (dating back Birth of a Nation's "Gus") only speaks to how normative such an image has become.
This is the a point made recently by The Opportunity Agenda in their report "Media Representations and the Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys," which suggest correlations between media depictions of Black males and lowered life chances. Specifically the reports suggest casual links between media portrays of Black males and public attitudes directed towards them including "general antagonisms," "exaggerated views related to criminality and violence," "lack of identification with or sympathy for black males," and "public support for punitive approaches to problems" related to Black males -- all dynamics that have played out in the corporate media coverage of Trayvon Martin's death.
None of these observations are surprising to anyone who lives in the body of a Black male, but the report's highlighting of the casualness of these links suggests that most Americans have no other way to view Black men. In their most benign forms, such views find older White women clutching their bags in elevators; in its everyday forms Black males are harassed by law enforcement and denied access to equal opportunity; in its most tragic forms, a 17-year-old boy is shot dead by a neighborhood watch captain -- and his death is reduced to, if we are to believe Today Show host Matt Lauer, a dispute between two men, as opposed to an adult male pursuing and killing a child because he "looked" dangerous.
As the images of Black males have literally filled the whole frame -- in our imaginations and on our iPad screens -- their humanity is exponentially squeezed out. Part of the reason that Jeffrey Wright's howling had to be experienced off-screen is that we have so little understanding of Black males, as vulnerable, in pain, under duress, in terror and confronting death. As social scientist Richard Majors acknowledged twenty years ago in his book Cool Pose : The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America, so many of the visual and physical cues performed by Black males are simply masking their vulnerabilities.
The pursuit of justice aside, in his dying moments, Trayvon Martin gave voice to all of the Black men, women and children whose humanity continues to be denied in a society that has long chosen to not listen to us.
Mark Anthony Neal is the author of five books including the forthcoming Looking For Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities (New York University Press). He is professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African & African-American Studies at Duke University and the host of the Weekly Webcast Left of Black. Follow him on Twitter @NewBlackMan.