The death of Trayvon Martin shows us that in life, perception is reality. In fact, reality is often times based on perception; the perception of those in control of guiding the path of society and culture, regardless whether or not that course is right or wrong. The theme I gave my sophomores at the beginning of the year for U.S. History I surrounded the topic of racism: that it is an ideology of superiority conceived by Greek philosophers and born by Western Civilization out of a desire for the enslavement of the African for the economic gain of the European. Christianity was the vehicle used to justify the ideology and belief system of racism -- thus it became the basis of over 400 years of Europe's economic policy in the New World and in the old one. What does that have to do with Trayvon Martin and the caution with which my black male students ought to avail themselves: everything.
Science and culture wasn't the only thing the Greeks traveled back to Europe with. They also traveled back with stories of their interactions with the African; some of those stories were of a horrid nature. Even the "father of history" Herodotus himself referred to Africans as "barbarians" and he even said that "their speech resembles the shrieking of a bat rather than the language of men." Testimonials such as this were heavily relied upon by Europeans of the Renaissance, primarily when Europeans took an interest in world exploration. Such testimonials were the basis for the belief that the African was a barbarian. This foundation wasn't based simply on the negative view Europeans had of Africans, but it was based on the need to justify free labor in Europe and in European settlements worldwide. Yet how could one enslave another human being if one believed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Simple, if one were a barbarian then it meant that they weren't a Christian and thus it was okay ... The reality of the situation was based on the perception of those shaping society and culture.
With respect to slavery in the United States -- the tradition of racism and Christianity justifying and maintaining the economic power structure over black slaves and poor whites continued. In the process, a recycled strategy was employed -- taking away the manhood of the black male slave by rescinding the rights of his adulthood. The dual transition from childhood to adulthood and boyhood to manhood was very important in many, if not all, African societies. Important to note in that in African tradition you could not be a man without being an adult first; what made you a man was that you were a fully functioning adult. When a child became an adult, he was able to take care of himself; he could provide a home for himself, provide food for himself and protect his home and his life. Then an adult became a man with the ability to partake in exercising his manhood through warrior-hood and participating in sexual intercourse. As a slave, he could do none; he could neither marry, nor have sustainable relations with his woman and children, nor could he defend his newly ascribed territory without the expressed written consent of his master and/or the United States government. The black man was figuratively castrated of his manhood via the stripping of his ability to be an adult. The economic structure of the Antebellum South depended on it. Poor whites didn't benefit from this system, yet they bought into it and they passed many of the negative portrayals of black men and black people onto their children and to their children's children while the power structure marveled at their orchestration.
After slavery and throughout Jim Crow, the black man continued to be viewed as less than -- a creature who was shiftless, a troublemaker and inferior intellectually to his white counterpart. His only accomplishments were in his physical giftedness, athletically and sexually. Black men had to prove society wrong, that we were more than what society perceived.. We proved society wrong in wartime and in peace; we proved society wrong through our determination and perseverance during the civil rights movement; we proved society wrong as we excelled academically in addition to athletically; we proved society wrong in politics with House representatives, senators and a president and we continue to prove society wrong daily. Yet even with all of that proof, there are those who chose to continue in the tradition of Herodotus.
That means that there are those who continue to allow their sight to define reality. Some see young African American males on corners selling drugs and believe that most young African American males sell drugs. Some see the 47% graduation rate of black males and conclude that black males don't care about obtaining an education. Many see the high numbers of black males in jails and prisons and believe that we're incapable of adhering to law and order. Many wonder why we always get away. To teach the death of Trayvon Martin is to teach our nation's history; it is to equip our young black males with the knowledge that regardless of our well intentioned catch phrases designed for teaching them valuable life lessons, people indeed judge a book by its cover before they read what's on the inside. To teach the death of Trayvon Martin is to caution our society not to engage in or succumb to race baiting in either the smallest instance or the largest fiasco. This is bigger than Trayvon Martin or George Zimmerman; this is an opportunity for America's classrooms to confront the seeds of our nation's racist ideological past and discuss how and why we've reached this point in our current history. The lesson in teaching Trayvon isn't simply to warn our young black men to be aware of their surroundings but it is also to warn America to be aware of itself.
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