Since the issuing of the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman I haven’t said much publicly about the verdict. This is not because of not caring or being out of touch. I just didn’t know if there was anything I could say that would be profound, or add to the ongoing dialogue about the racial and social commentary of both the situation and the verdict or do my disillusionment justice. I was not surprised that George Zimmerman was acquitted, I felt that he would be from the onset of the trial. Make no doubt about it I was disappointed and disgusted and that feeling has not abated even after a week. More than anything else it was a stark reminder after being away from the USA for almost an entire year after having spent last summer working in Jamaica and living in Denmark for ten months; regardless of the fact that I’m “educated” and some would consider me as an individual that is realizing the American Dream while climbing the proverbial social and economic ladders, in other words I could be considered a model citizen, NONE of that matters especially if I happen to come across somebody who is prejudiced towards black people, particularly in possession of animus towards black males.
This morning I woke up to a rather touching Facebook message from one of the Rotarians from my host club in Copenhagen who I struck up a friendship with.
Hi Terrol, I hope you are doing well in Florida. It is Saturday morning and within the next 5 days I will become a father since my girlfriend was due last Thursday. I read this article and wondered how you evaluated or would put this in context to the time you spent in Denmark? I noticed that your photos have changed a bit since you went back to FL compared to your time in Denmark/Europe. I mean that there is not a whole lot of photos of "non Afro Americans" on them. Is this just a coincidence or is the way of living rather divided? Sorry for the usual direct Danish manner - you know me, I hope you are doing well and that we will meet up again. If I should take my family to FL in the Autumn I will like to meet up but I will have to see if my daughter is a screaming little devil or a relax sleeping girl first. Take care I care
The article he is referring to is President Obama’s remarks on Trayvon Martin and race in America. I spent my adolescence in Florida: 12-16 in cosmopolitan and diverse South Florida and 16-18 in rural Central Florida. Let me reiterate the president’s sentiments “Trayvon Martin could have been me…” No really. From 2002-2005 I was a fan of wearing durags, baggy clothing and big gaudy jewelry including a massive chain and pendant and Timberland shoes. My sartorial sensibilities reflected that of hip-hop culture of that period to my mother’s chagrin. I cannot tell you how many times my best friend Jacey and I were trailed in stores when we used to go to Sawgrass Mills Mall or other malls in Broward County every few weeks. When the story broke about Trayvon, Jacey and I had a conversation about how we would have responded if we were accosted in an antagonistic manner by anybody whether black, white, purple, yellow, orange etc. I think it’s safe to say that from 13-16 we would have responded in kind if accosted in a manner laced in aggression. What could have been the outcome? At that moment would they have known that at age 15 I was number one in my high school class of 500 plus students, would they have known that I had dreams of going to Duke University for my undergraduate studies and Yale for graduate study, would they have known that I had no disciplinary infractions in my academic life? The answer for that is a resounding NO. Based on my style of dress, my accent, the shade of my skin they would have assumed that I was “behaviorally challenged” and a fledgling criminal.
In the summer of 2007, the summer before I left for college I was working at two Arby’s in the Central Floridian town that I lived in, one from 7-3, and the other 4-11, Monday-Thursday. Needless to say my schedule was tight. Me being mindful of the time because of my unique circumstances and doing everything I needed to do before 3:00 rubbed one of the assistant managers the wrong way, he was a middle aged Caucasian man and in all honesty was prone to snapping volatilely. One day he got upset at me for what he perceived to be “insubordination” when I was told to do another thing by the general manager. He engaged me in a verbal altercation and told a 17 year old me to step outside with him. I shudder to think if I had lost my cool completely (I was pretty close, I haven’t been that angry since), or if our manager hadn’t been prescient enough to step in between the two of us after he lunged at me. Anything could have happened, it is quite possible based on where I live that he may have had a concealed weapon in his vehicle.
I started high school almost 10 years ago and because of how I dressed and the assumptions that three of my four Quantum Leap teachers made about me I was treated with disdain and even denied of an award in favor of a close friend who was also black but a lot less “urban” than I was at the time, he readily admits to this and it is something we laugh about to this day. My lesson here was that how you are perceived matters. For much of the past six years I haven’t spent much time at home and even when I’m here I stay at home quite a bit. When Trayvon Martin was murdered one of the most poignant scenarios that played out in my mind, was me walking around in my neighborhood in my dark blue Yale hoodie or black Wake Forest hoodie (the most comfortable and flexible article of clothing known to man) and some overzealous armed member of our neighborhood watch accosting me because of a host of reasons: not recognizing me, my dreadlocks, me living in a predominantly white neighborhood, all this translates into me being a suspicious character. What would have been the outcome?
I first read Brent Staples’ Black Men and Public Spaces as a sixteen year old in my AP English Language course. In introducing the story my teacher said she chose it because -while in the shower, hahaha- I was the only black person in the class and she felt as if I could probably relate. I could and still can but it was because of how assumptions of black male criminality and how its ramifications dictate people's movements and comportment. I have been followed in Macy’s which is my favorite store to shop for clothes countless of times (I still am), I recognize how tense people including fellow students were when I walked in close proximity to them in New Haven at night. It is only now that the other part of the Black Men and Public Spaces' gist has taken on even more profound significance: “And I soon gathered that being perceived as dangerous is a hazard in itself. I only needed to turn a corner into a dicey situation, or crowd some frightened, armed person in a foyer somewhere, or make an errant move after being pulled over by a policeman. Where fear and weapons meet – and they often do in urban America – there is always the possibility of death.”
I find myself yearning for Copenhagen’s somewhat less racially charged atmosphere. I find myself reluctantly siding with my mother’s insistence that my brothers dress a certain way and wear certain hairstyles. The majority of time I’ve lived in America I’ve found myself in predominantly white academic situations, but I can only readily think of less than a handful of people in the USA I consider friends who are white. I have no problems interacting with American Caucasians in academic and professional settings, but for some reason there remains a barrier socially. Honestly, I’d like to think this isn’t a reflection of any prejudice on my part, because I’m a very open-minded person and get along with people from all walks of life. But the truth of the matter is that in much of America although systematic segregation has been dismantled, or we’d like to think so, self-segregation still exists. This self-segregation is grown out of an inherent fear of the other on the part of the majority of white Americans. For me if I’m guilty of self-segregation, it is more of a response, I don’t want to always be reminded of and defined by my race. I abide by the credo “if you are cool I’m cool”.
“National dialogue and conversations on race” are worn out tropes. I don’t think they get us anywhere. I think what we need as Americans is a commitment to reflection and action. The woman I’m currently interested in dating is a public interest lawyer in Florida and our recent conversations have been colored by the racial undercurrents of the Martin-Zimmerman encounter and the trial that ensued as well as the failures of the criminal justice system as it relates to blacks. I sincerely hope that bonding with a woman or anybody else for that matter by virtue of our mutual commiseration over an unfortunate and tragic incident that reeks with the stench of racial prejudice and injustice and the resulting disappointment in a criminal justice system that does little to mitigate the feeling of being second-class citizens in a country that we love will eventually be a distant memory and a thing of the past.