THE BLOG

Rachel Jeantel and 'Race Pride'

07/24/2013 01:13 pm ET | Updated Sep 23, 2013
Getty

Race pride is a luxury I cannot afford. There are too many implications behind the term. Now, suppose a Negro does something really magnificent, and I glory, not in the benefit of mankind, but in the fact that the doer was a Negro. Must I also go hang my head in shame when a member of my race does something execrable?

Thus wrote Harlem Renaissance folklorist Zora Neale Hurston in her 1942 autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road. A flamboyant and controversial character, Hurston's references to "race pride" seems anachronistic yet, conversely, perhaps still relevant, as America continues to struggle with her perennial problem: race.

Most recently sucked into the toxic vortex was 19-year-old Rachel Jeantel, a disinclined "star witness" in the case of George Zimmerman, charged but acquitted of second-degree murder in the slaying of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.

As I observed how Jeantel had been eviscerated on social media -- by blacks and whites -- because of her excruciating testimony and her appearance (she was ridiculed for resembling Gabourey Sidibe's character in Precious), Zora Neale Hurston's ruminations on race sprang to mind.

Once again, it proved to be a lightning rod exposing the fissures of a polarized nation. "It is a deadly explosive on the tongues of men," contended Hurston. And so it proved: Scores of African-Americans bombarded Twitter with disparagement; Jeantel, some surmised, was "ignorant" and an "embarrassment" -- by inference, "to the race." The shorthand: She was too "ghetto." And on the other side of the divide, Twitter was ablaze with "Trayvon was a thug who got what he deserved."

When Juror B37 broke her silence in an interview with Anderson Cooper, viewers could barely make out her silhouette. But there was no disguising her sentiments, which compounded the angst many felt about Zimmerman's acquittal.

Unguarded and bolstered by anonymity, she betrayed another aspect of the country's cultural chasm: Condescendingly, she said she had been unable to "understand" Jeantel -- literally. But, tellingly, this translated into discounting Jeantel as a credible witness. However, as fate would have it, the juror got caught up in her own furor: People were aghast that her interview hinted at bias, and a book deal had been proposed -- although subsequently aborted -- causing some to question her own credibility.

Moreover, not only was Juror B37 sympathetic toward Zimmerman, but she seemed devoid of empathy for Trayvon; in fact, she was adamant that he had been the aggressor. One of the teenager's supporters was so disgusted that he tweeted profoundly, "Only in America could a black boy go on trial for his own murder!"

Blaming Rachel Jeantel for the prosecution's catastrophic failure to prove its case was misguided. Considering that she was their "star witness," it beggared belief that Jeantel had been so poorly prepared. Indeed, some were scathing and suspected that it was "convenient" that Jeantel's was the face associated with Zimmerman's acquittal.

Incredibly, celebrity criminal defense lawyer Mark Geragos accused prosecutors of "throwing the case," and Jarvis DeBerry questioned their motives. Grist to the wheel had been a prosecutorial zeal in securing Marissa Alexander's conviction under the controversial "Stand Your Ground" law; a guilty verdict was returned after 12 minutes of jury deliberation, consigning Alexander to a 20-year sentence.

While Juror B37 insisted that her interview with Anderson Cooper would be her first and last, Rachel Jeantel embarked upon a media blitz. First up was with Piers Morgan. For those to whom it mattered, Jeantel had had a makeover: a different weave, contact lenses, and brightly painted nails. But, significantly, Piers Morgan was able to do a better job than the prosecutors had.

Previously, there was a collective hanging of heads in "shame"; after her TV appearance Jeantel had "set the record straight." While still being her usual unfiltered self, she brought clarity that had deserted her on the witness stand. With careful handling she emerged with the sassiness of a Zora Neale Hurston and had "done something really magnificent" in reminding us that Travyon was on his way home, minding his business, and was racially profiled, stalked, and shot dead. Overnight, critics became cheerleaders. Rachel Jeantel had indeed morphed into a "star witness" -- albeit belatedly, and not when it mattered most.

Before the tide turned, and troubled by Jeantel's public humiliation, influential radio host and philanthropist Tom Joyner reached out. On offer was extra tuition for her to complete high school, with a view to furthering her education. Symbolically, it would be at an institution within the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) network, established in an era in which blacks were denied an education. Nevertheless, HBCUs had produced upstanding members of society, leaders, captains of industry, and the basis of a burgeoning black middle class. In essence, graduates, among whom many would dearly love to see Rachel Jeantel, would become the embodiment of "race pride."