Trayvon Martin died five years ago today. I’ve written about him before on this blog, or more precisely, I’ve written about his mother, Sybrina Fulton, a woman I think about often.
That first blog post rose from inside me upon hearing the not-guilty verdict a Florida court handed down to Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman. That such a man—a domestic abuser, a wannabe vigilante, a bully—might earn the descriptor “innocent” devastated me, and I thought how much can our country ask one mother to bear?
I could not have predicted at the time of Trayvon Martin’s death or Zimmerman’s acquittal, at the time I wrote that original response, that I might become a mother and moreover a mother to a black son too. Having a black son does not change my read of the story’s injustice, but it sinks the sadness and rage somewhere a few millimeters deeper into my chest cavity.
What new thing is there to say on the anniversary of an innocent boy’s murder? What I wouldn’t give for Obama’s measured devastation; I’d settle for a somber tweet. But no.
I’ve been thinking today about the relationship between Trayvon Martin’s murder and real estate. Between racism and the land. In many ways, the Martin-Zimmerman story is a story of disintegration: of a neighborhood, of an economy, of community itself. On the night of his death, Martin was staying with his father, Tracy, in the townhome subdivision of Twin Lakes that—like many townhome complexes in cities all over the country at the time—had transitioned from owners to renters in the housing market’s collapse. The demographics of the complex shifted, what was segregated became integrated, but not in any true sense. The transitional nature of renting contributed to skepticism and a lapse in neighborliness. Thus, the “neighborhood patrol” to which Zimmerman belonged and of which he imagined himself a badged lieutenant, and which also gave him the justification to carry a weapon. To Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin became every black boy that the complex’s gates and security codes had been designed to exclude. He was an interloper, a stranger.
Yesterday, a real estate agent walked my husband and I through a home in a transitional neighborhood nearer to downtown than ours. Right now, we live in a townhome in a coveted Houston neighborhood, a neighborhood with an acclaimed public elementary school, with restaurants and bars and bike shops and so many new moms and nannies, so much economic comfort, that one day while I walked my dog a construction worker commented from a rooftop renovation, “Man, people in this hood be strollin’.” The neighborhood was once so poor that a serial killer preyed on boys for years without the cops catching on: what was one missing boy in such a place? Or two? Or three? Or twenty? But now it’s a white neighborhood that grows paler skin by the minute.
We’d be crazy to leave, really. But I worry about my son—not the white one, who stumbles into neighbor’s yards already and runs sticks along people’s fences with his chubby hands. I worry about the black one, a beautiful infant that people coo over but who will eventually hit puberty and look something like Trayvon or Tamir.
As the real estate agent schmoozed with my husband, the baby slept in his car seat in the empty living room whose new hardwood floors still emitted a carpentry smell. Graham and I walked onto the porch and sat to eat an orange. Across the street, on the porches of rundown shotgun homes, two older black men chatted. I could hear them.
“They got one white baby and one black one.”
“Nah, they don’t.”
“They do. I saw him.”
“How y’all doin’?” one of the asked.
“Good,” I said and Graham smiled. “And you?”
“Alright. Can’t complain.”
We would stick out like sore thumbs here, and a friend mentions that to me later. You’ll be hyper aware of your whiteness all the time, she said. And Graham too, at that elementary school. So either way, someone will feel racialized. Another friend says, I guess you’re lucky to teach at a private school—you could send him there. (I believe very strongly in sending our kids to neighborhood schools, because I believe in neighborhoods. If we move, my kids will attend the neighborhood school regardless of its racial makeup, but that’s a whole other blog post.)
She’s right about someone feeling their difference in either neighborhood, but the crux of it for me is this: If Graham feels conscious of his difference in a mostly brown neighborhood, he will not feel it at home where his parents resemble him. And he will have his parents for company in his awareness of his whiteness; he will not experience that potential other-ing alone. In our current neighborhood, should Wendell experience an other-ing, he will experience it by himself, without us to provide anything but verbal comfort. More importantly, his awareness of his blackness will have the force of violent history behind it, the threat of that concerned call to the police or the malicious curiosity of a neighborhood watchman. His black body will be at risk thrown, as Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “against a sharp white background.” The word “sharp” in that famous sentence has two denotative meanings, of course: both “stark” and “dangerous.” Racial consciousness can enlarge, complicate, and bolster a black or a white child’s sense of identity, but so much depends on how and where that consciousness gets formed. And let’s not forget that the original sin of American racism was about land: who owns it, who works it, who gets to stand barefoot in the lake’s edges and think home.
“You’re close to the rail line, close to your current neighborhood,” the agent says. “But you probably need an electric gate. Maybe a security system. There’s public housing down the block.”
On the way home, we weigh pros and cons. Make lists. Halloween, we think. What about Halloween? I don’t know what we’ll do.
I named Wendell, in part, after the writer Wendell Berry. Since I’m on maternity leave, while he sleeps, I have decided to reread Berry’s nonfiction book, The Hidden Wound, a meditation on the unconscious, unspoken pain that racism has planted in white Americans. When we return to our townhome, my husband joins Graham for a turn around the block. From the window, I watch Graham select a twig to carry and another for his father to carry. I swaddle Wendell and lay him in the bassinet and pick up reading where I left off the day before:
“No matter what laws or governments say, men can only come to know and come to care for one another by meeting face to face, arduously, and by the willing loss of comfort,” my son’s namesake writes.
Perhaps George Zimmerman’s most offensive and most perilous trait was his allegiance to comfort. Perhaps our gates and security codes make us feel safe, but because they keep us from arduous work—and arduous work is the only worthwhile kind, the kind that nurtures dignity—they might, in fact, endanger us further.
Might I owe it to Trayvon’s mother, to her son and mine and the woman who bore him, to do more than lobby for change? Might I owe them my discomfort? After all, discomfort is different from pain, and will never hurt me as much as the bullet that pierces my child’s heart.