I had a visceral reaction when I first heard about the killing of Trayvon Martin. My heart sunk low, my stomach panged and blood rose through my body and up my back. My mind, like millions others at the time, was simultaneously grappling with seemingly conflicting emotions of anguish and rage. All of these images came flooding into my head: Images of the countless Black males I've taught and mentored for the past 15 years left that space of memory and flooded my head right then and there.
In looking into Trayvon's eyes in the numerous photos that scoured the internet what resonated most was his youthful gaze, and the promise and potential present in his demeanor that all boys at that age embody. Here was no deviant criminal, no ruthless or malicious man with ill intent. Here was a Black boy, who even before he drew his first breath upon this earth was considered suspicious.
With George Zimmerman's recent charging and his impending court dates, I am relieved and hopeful that justice will be served. However, I still do not feel satisfied or settled. While much attention has been given to who killed Trayvon, far less attention has been given to what killed him. And it appears to me that the underlying cause in what really killed Trayvon is a deadly mixture of suspicion, fear, and power.
I've been thinking about this notion of suspicion, recently. I wonder what makes us suspicious of people, and what indicates places or faces that are suspicious. And it seems that a few themes appear again and again in my thinking. First, suspicion is a learned behavior. We were taught how and why to be suspicious by individuals who love and care for us. Simultaneously we learn through our interactions with others and with media important lessons that guide and sustain our wariness of certain people and places. In this regard, and this is my second point, I think sometimes suspicion can be a great thing, as it triggers our protective instinct to avoid people or situations where we might find danger. However, thirdly, suspicion can be a horrible thing. It stifles our curiosity, it forecloses on our desire to explore and take risks, and it can cause us to utilize unreasonable means to establish comfort when suspicion and fear meets power. This last point is where I find my critique. Being suspicious of entire groups is never ever okay.
Throughout recent U.S history modes of suspicion have been cast upon ethnic, cultural, racial and religious groups for a variety of reasons. During World War II, tens of thousands of Japanese citizens, deemed suspicious, were violently interred to prevent supposed spying. When I was in high school, those who wore long black trench coats were viewed as suspicious because of post-Columbine hysteria. After the attacks of 9-11, Muslims, Sikhs, and those of Arab descent generally were subjected to increasingly suspicious gazes at airports, schools, and in other public spaces. Currently young adult Asian males are looked at with suspicion because of recent shooting violence committed by a few cultural group members.
These historical instances have lead to thoroughly ignorant reactions to large groups of people for the actions of a few. The hope is that the suspicion gripping these groups will fade with time. However, no group has been looked at with a more rigid and enduring gaze of suspicion than Black males. Media-informed stereotypes of Black males as animalistic criminals, and as shiftless and ruthless ne'er-do-wells have tainted the mindsets of millions worldwide almost since the founding of the nation. In this regard, Trayvon was not dangerous that night. He was born into a suspicious racial and gender group deemed dangerous through media and other historicized constructions of who is culpable, scary, and up to no good. Let's take a brief look into the history of the Black male given this lens.
Prior to emancipation, the Black body was scrutinized, examined, sold and worked beyond human understanding at the will of plantation owners. During this time, Black men were portrayed as childlike and naive, mostly to dampen the vitriolic realities of slavery in the minds of Americans. Post emancipation, be it through "Sambo-esque" images of Black males on sheet music in the 19th century, or in antebellum advertisements featuring Uncle Remus selling grits, the Black male was continually exploited, laughed-at, and looked-down upon as a feeble character. During the reconstruction era, images of the "Black Brute" found Black men as vicious and savage creatures, suspicious in the eyes of White men eager to protect White women from their "hyper-sexualized" nature. Furthermore, darker-hued characters in cartoons, children's books and films are more often than not the most suspicious of characters, prone to thievery, wickedness or deceit. And more recent promulgations of the "Black male as criminal" stereotype is seen in TV shows like Cops, thus cementing Black males as the embodiment of the most suspicious human form on this earth.
Unfortunately, there is little that I can do to alter other's perceptions of my racial and gender group. As a Black male, no matter how many degrees I earn, nor how many places I travel to, I remain a victim to an objective narrative written in the minds of so many prior to many even hearing me introduce myself. It is etched into the very fibers of my being. I am a Black male, and I represent and embody a gender and racial group demonized, feared, and criminalized. I carry the same suspicion that Trayvon and the countless other Black male bodies traversing the world carry with them daily. So, when Trayvon fell that night, part of me fell too. I also carry tremendous pride about my racial group membership and remain quite confident about my worth. But much of that has not been celebrated in media and in popular discourse regarding Black males.
This suspicion informs the mindsets of anyone who interacts with media and subsequently interacts with Black males. It resides in the minds of teachers and principals who make disciplinary decisions regarding young Black boys, and in the minds of possible employers who hire on subjective notions of who is "the best fit" for the job. These mindsets inform police officers' decisions on who to follow, and it assuredly informed Mr. Zimmerman in his pursuit of a Black male body that evening.
In this regard, the problem of suspicion resides in the social and cultural factors that work in and through each and every one of us. While there is little that I can do alone, there is a tremendous amount that we can do collectively. Like I noted earlier, suspicion is learned, and thusly, can be unlearned. The deconstruction of suspicion is going to require effort, as notions of whom we should be suspicious of are intricately woven into the fabric of how we interact, who acquires the most desirable social positioning, and in some cases who gets imprisoned, or even killed.
Dangerous things can happen when suspicion and fear meets power. It becomes imperative that we constantly challenge our presumptions of individuals and do so through unpacking our racialized notions of who might bring us harm. We also need to trouble how our suspicion, and how our outward displays of fears and anxieties impact others.
Just how suspicion has subsided for countless other racial and cultural groups, I can only hope that the same will occur for Black males. What killed Trayvon is more important to discuss, than whom. While justice will hopefully take care of the who, it is up to us as a collective to problematize the what. In some regards, grappling with the problems on an individual is a far easier task than delving deeply into the societal ills informing individual mindsets and actions.
I implore readers to trouble the notions that inform their suspicion of Black males. So, after you clutch your purse at the sight of a Black boy walking past, or cross the street when a Black male appears in your view, think of what your suspicion caused you to do. Then, imagine how your action made your now victim feel. Then alter your future thinking to alter your future actions.