THE BLOG
07/11/2013 12:04 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2013

Exhibit A? The Theater of a Black Dummy

Speechless. I am in a Manhattan diner. Eyes glued to CNN. The prosecution in the George Zimmerman trial has pulled out a black dummy. He straddles it, handles it, pulls it up, stays straddled and questions a witness. The defense follows. They, too, straddle the dummy and then continue to question the witness. The man on the stand is a private investigator testifying to who may have hit whom, at what angle, with what amount of force. I am no longer listening. I am watching a representation of Trayvon, no longer human, an exhibit -- now a black dummy, no soul, no heart, no eyes, no mind, no dreams, no life. In that moment a roll call of black male bodies turned into dummies, humanity drained out of them, hits me. Finding words to convey why this visual strikes so viscerally is hard. CNN breaks from the trial. The anchor comments on the introduction of the dummy -- telling viewers they will be amazed, stunned at what just happened. Commercials play. More commentators appear. Analysis follows. How will this play out? Did the prosecution over-play its hand? How will jurors react? And on, and on. I consider Trayvon's mom and daddy -- two sorrowful parents observing legal experts use a dummy to represent their dead child.

Watching the prosecution and then the defense straddle the black dummy to demonstrate a piece of evidence, I am floored. I have a meeting to get to, but I am still sitting in the diner. The waiter needs me to pay the check. I am leaned forward reading subtitles, watching CNN's live coverage. I watch other diners glance at the screen, salad lunches are interrupted, conversations momentarily put on hold. One asks another: Is that a black dummy? Lunch companion stares, nods: They, too, are now glued to CNN.

Trials are about evidence, we are told. Jurors are cautioned to weigh the facts presented before them, to navigate minefields of data, draw conclusions based on that data and arrive at a verdict solely based on that information. Emotionality is also a crucial part of that evidence. That dummy evoked feelings. That was its intention. Within this trial, emotionality carries the weight of history, it shapes our perspective especially around race and gender. Yet it is so often negated, dismissed, disregarded and discredited. The black dummy brings to mind images of too many lifeless black bodies of men and women, killed because they evoked suspicion according to their killers.

Trials are institutional spaces that offer more than the weight of evidence to convey guilt or innocence. They carry society's prejudices and practice; they hold history and shape perspective; they are deeply emotional spaces where information is not simply presented, but interpreted. The actions by the prosecution and defense teams seek to evoke and provoke feeling, not simply convey information but connect that information to a juror. The juror is made to feel. With this trial, there are not simply facts and figures -- there is a history of our relationship with black male bodies evidenced as threat and predator -- and there is the challenge to create a new relationship: that of the black male body as victim.

The prosecution sought to evoke feelings of Trayvon as victim by using that dummy. The defense then took its turn -- straddled the dummy, manipulated it this way and that as they continued to question the witness while staying straddled on the dummy. Disturbing, deeply disturbing. The presentation of the dummy transformed the courtroom into a theater and introduced drama and action as a means to disrupt fact and shift to the power of emotion. That may have been the intention. For me, watching two white white men straddle a lifeless black dummy is evocative of more than a moment during a trial that is capturing headlines, it was a reminder of a history where black bodies are utilized and discarded by institutions within elements of white America.

America's relationship with emotionality and blackness is uncomplicated when it comes to the mamas of boys broken and buried due to deadly violence. A black mama's grief must be tempered, measured, unhostile, not vocal. It must never be racial. Conditions met, America may exercise her empathy muscle, support may be given, an audience may appear, and the mainstream media may open its doors. America's collective outpouring of grief came with head nods and murmurs of approval toward Sybrina's demonstration of grief -- she is collected, calm, clear and not polarized or polarizing because of race talk. Let's be clear, this is not about how Sybrina Fulton -- or any mama -- grieves. That is deeply personal and private. It is about America's relationship to that grief, and her need to feel included, innocent and neither implicated nor castigated.

Tim Wise, a white anti-racist activist, author and writer has said of this case and America that it is: "...a nation where blackness and danger have long been considered synonymous, such that any black male over the age of perhaps 10 can 'reasonably' be assumed a predator..."

CNN's Piers Morgan on Tuesday night did a segment on the Zimmerman trial, which featured activist scholar and author Dr. Marc Lamont Hill. Dr. Hill said: "...we have this history of seeing black male bodies as dangerous and threatening and always worthy of lethal force, we never can see them as victims of violence, only as purveyors of violence, it is easy to believe that George Zimmerman is justified."

That history doesn't individualize black boys, doesn't see their innocence, their dreams, their joy and especially their fears. That's why "emotional justice" is crucial; it is about tackling this legacy of untreated trauma that shapes our relationships and silences those traumas despite their manifestation in myriad forms -- this trial is one of those forms.

There is a collective need by elements of white America to see all black male bodies as threat, so introducing a dummy is not an effective tool to emphasize a boy's victimhood or to drive home testimony, rather it becomes a reminder of that very institutionalization of black male bodies. If a black boy doesn't get to be scared, but always gets to be scary -- since that is part of this nation's history -- how can emotionality not be a crucial part of the evidence being weighed by this -- or indeed any -- jury? Impartiality is a myth when it comes to black boys and their violent deaths at the hands of white institutions. We privilege perspective and offer versions of history and contextualize behavior to support our perspective. Denial of emotionality does not serve justice, it maintains a relationship between race and violence that continues to see black mamas bury their babies and become witness to trials that end with them hearing two devastating words about the killers of their children: "not guilty."