Recovering Trayvon Martin

Though race gets made in the culture and not in nature, like processed food, the manufactured product has many powerful and potent uses. Though not a natural product born from the earth, Twinkies, Doritos, and Corn Pops can effect real damage on the body as well as on the earth. Over-consumption can clog the body’s arteries and lead to the damage of vital organs. The energy that goes into manufacturing these products create additional pollutants that are reeking real damage in the environment. The fact that race is not natural but created does not diminish its power; its potency.

Scientist/Artist: Charles White, An Account of the Regular Gradation in Man, and in Different Animals and Vegetables (1799). This representation of The Great Chain of Being shows the “Negro” as nearer to the ape than the ideal.

The Englightenment Age investment in studying the body as the primary source for an engagement with the science of race and its grounding–though totally misguided as a rational, disciplined, responsible practice–continues to inform how we engage the subject of being raced or having race. When we want to point to race or to indicate its meaning, we often do that through an engagement with the body. So if we had moved beyond examinations of race that equated it with the natural sciences, we could, even in our casual conversations, discuss the way that language makes and constructs race, for example. We would talk about the way that language brings race into being through its system of signs. But no, we make race about how bodies look and what we think is in them. Such a view of race has been boldly present in the Trayvon Martin case.

That child has been made into a character of black malevolence in the on-going racial plot line of American history through depictions of his body and the internal networks that make it go. The most recent narrative regarding the autopsy report makes this plain. George Zimmerman’s system showed the presence of manufactured drugs in his system, Temazepam, a drug also known as Restoril, which is used to treat insomnia. The headline dominating the news, however, is not the story of the drugs in the body of the living man but the ones inside of the body of the dead child. Despite the fact that the U.S. National Library of Medicine makes the suggestion that Temazepam users should “tell your doctor right away if you experience any of the following symptoms: aggressiveness, strange or unusually outgoing behavior, hallucinations (seeing things or hearing voices that do not exist), feeling as if you are outside of your body, memory problems, difficulty concentrating, new or worsening depression, thinking about killing yourself, confusion, and any other changes in your usual thoughts, mood, or behavior,” Zimmerman’s use of this drug isn’t being discussed in the mainstream in terms of his credibility. Instead, the trace amounts of THC, the drug found in marijuana, in Martin’s body have been used to reify the very notion that he is not entitled to our sympathy because he is outside of the terms of civil, manageable, and properly sociable practices and habits.

The marijuana that Trayvon Martin smoked apparently confirms his status as a “thug.” The egregiousness of this charge becomes most apparent when you accept how racialized it is. “Thug” functions as a racialized term for talking about black boys and men that performs in the way that poet Cornelius Eady describes it in his poem “How I Got Born,”

“When called, I come.”

There are no public service announcements about how we can save our sons from the traps of being a thug; there are no Lifetime movies about black boys who are vulnerable to peer pressure and choose the posture of a thug to attract girls. Michael Eric Dyson tells just this story of Tupac Shakur in his wonderful bio-critical work, Holla if You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur, about the slain rapper. Tupac was a thespian whose penchant for the arts didn’t help his ambitions to be liked and popular with girls. Tupac’s story of adolescent angst doesn’t resound on American television and in mainstream articles like the stories about troubled kids who go on school shooting rampages or who binge drink or who bully. Those things become causes for national attention. The pressures that might have been placed on a black male honors program student who baby sat, volunteered, and baked cookies has no thematic resonance with stories of white adolescents who are coming of age.

Trayvon Martin was no thug. He was a young man coming of age who found representations of being a thug attractive…and why wouldn’t he? Reflections of the glamour of thug life abound in American culture. Justin Timberlake finds thug life attractive. If he didn’t, why would he make records with Lil’ Wayne and T.I., two rappers who perpetuate this image and have both faced jail time? Will Smith rhymes, why not rap with him? Robin Thicke doesn’t mind being associated with the image of thuggin’ either. He also raps with Lil’ Wayne. And while Beyonce has been shrouded in representations of upper-class motherhood of late, the lyrics to “Soldier” by her group Destiny’s Child celebrates thug glamour:

We like them dem boys who be in them ‘lac’s leanin’//Open their mouth their grill gleamin’//Candy paint keep that wheel clean and//They keep that beat that be in the back beatin’//Eyes be so low from their chiefin//I love how he keep my body screamin’//A rude boy that’s good to me with street credibility//If his status ain’t hood//I ain’t checkin’ for him//Better be street if he lookin’ at me

The photographs of Trayvon Martin that came into circulation once there was speculation about his character reflects the image that Destiny’s Child heralds. Just like the photograph of Martin trying to look like he was a tough, hard, football player, the photographs of him with a grill as well as the one with the subdued eyes show an effort to be the “rude boy” with “street credibility” that young people find attractive.

Trayvon Martin was not a thug. He exemplifies some of what I learned from thinking about the lives of two of my cousins over the years. One cousin, who I’ll call Dame, was the product of a marriage that disintegrated and he lived in an inner-city project with his mother. His situation with her was never stable as she was drug dependent. The other cousin, who I’ll call Curtis, lived in the suburbs with his two parents who worked very solid jobs. My aunt was a very present mother who would take furlough time as much as she could so that she could be at home for her family or make home for them. Despite my aunt and uncle’s presence and their ability to provide for and nurture my cousin, he wanted very much to have the life of our cousin who lived in the Projects. I remember Dame talking about how much Curtis wanted to “get down” selling dope, stealing, fighting. Dame said that Curtis wanted him to teach him that life but that he just couldn’t do it. As Dame explained it, his life had to be as it was. He didn’t understand why Curtis wanted to do what he didn’t have to in order to make it.

Curtis’s view of Dame made sense to me. When we were younger, I remember thinking that Dame seemed capable. Before I realized how sad it was, I used to think that his ability to provide for himself, to secure clothes, food, and shelter, seemed mature. Even though Dame stopped going to school after his 8th grade year, I used to feel stupid about making my way in the world compared to what he could do. I mean, I wouldn’t have known how to catch the city bus from my house to downtown, but I imagined that Dame would always know how to navigate through the world. I got lost one time in the city. My aunt had taken me to a friend’s house with her and asked me to go to the store and purchase some things for her. When I left the store, I had no idea how to get back home. As I tried desperately to find my way, I vividly remember crying and thinking how this never would have happened to Dame. He would have known how to get back home.

The level of maturity that inner-city kids like Dame have to assume at a young age is heroic when it’s represented through the lives of white kids. Thus, Ree, the character that Jennifer Lawrence plays in Winter’s Bone impresses us because of the responsibility that she takes for her life as well as the young lives of her siblings, but as a culture, we seem to be impassive when young black kids do the same thing. It made sense to me that Curtis would want to be like Dame. Dame was forced to be a man when he was five. You have to mature for that to break your heart. It makes sense to me that young Trayvon would have wanted to wear the mantle of a thug. It is a posture of defiance, independence, control, and power. It makes sense that a young boy coming of age would have wanted to embrace the markers of the authority that he did not feel. He was a very smart young man so it just breaks your heart that he didn’t get a chance to live long enough to contemplate his vulnerability.

See Also:

For more posts on Trayvon Martin, see the A Heap See Page.

2 thoughts on “Recovering Trayvon Martin

  1. WELL PUT!!! I’ve have hardly seen any made for TV or cable movies about young black males coming of age and their struggles.
    It’s hard to be the Good Guy and get the girl as well as the Things in life you want. Plus let’s not forget the old saying ” good guys finish last”,
    What is that teaching young men as well as us as people of any race?

    1. Thank you. To your point, black males in American culture are deployed as symbolic servants who function precisely as poet Cornelius Eady claims: “When called, I come//My job is to get things done.” The black male image gets deployed to suggest danger and to mark distance and difference. Young black males like Trayvon Martin, I’m sure, think that they can put these images into service for themselves, in the way that Destiny’s Child suggests, and create a context of relevance wherein they can gain a hearing. It is oftentimes a tragic mis-calculation.

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