Models Monday: Black Boys, Trayvon Martin, and the Politics of Comfort

Today was my son’s first day of Kindergarten! I was very deliberate in framing how I talked about Monday, August 12 with Miles because of some great advice I received last year around this time. One of my dearest friends shared the ritual she used in taking her daughter to school during those early years. “At first, children are very nervous about entering into a new environment because they don’t know what to expect,” she explained. “So in order to help them,” she continued, “we should detail for them what their day will look like so that you minimize the surprises. Ultimately, the most important thing to reassure them of is,” and this I thought was brilliant, “that you will always come back.” In giving me this language, my friend enabled me to have a clearer view of my son’s concerns. I realized that he was afraid of being abandoned and so the repetition of the phrase was important because it emphasized my returning to him and my reclaiming of him; it also addressed and therefore helped to diminish his fears of rejection and abandonment. When my son began Pre-K, he seemed soooo comforted by these words. So much so that he would say them to me as he visualized his day. “…and then,”  he would say, “you will always come back for me.”

We visited my son’s new school for Orientation last Friday. He met his new teacher and saw his new classroom, but he wanted reassurance that we weren’t going to leave him there on Friday, which we confirmed. So from Friday to Monday I stressed to him that he is not being abandoned or discounted in being sent into this new experience, but I also considered the possibility that he wouldn’t fully understand the significance of these words until he had to recall them in the face of his new reality. When we arrived to school he was clearly nervous, so I started going over his day with him, and as I was doing this, his teacher came over and put her arms around him and said, “I know you’re scared now, but we will have a good day together.” I thought she was pitch perfect. She honored my son’s humanity. She didn’t encourage him to abandon his assessment of the world as it was represented through her classroom; she didn’t tell him to get over it. Miss Malcolm suggested that she understood anxiety as a companion to one’s experience of a new place. She didn’t imagine that he was outside of any expectation for tenderness in his life; instead, she imagined that my son, a black boy, has had the experience of deep and abiding love…she did all of that with what seems to be such a simple gesture; it doesn’t have to cost you very much at all.

In the wake of the assassination of Trayvon Martin, it was incredibly meaningful to me that this sistah recognized the possibility that black children can be afraid and sad. With this witness, Miss Malcolm showed me that she understood that black boys are worthy of comfort, care, and concern.

I thought Charles Blow’s editorial in The New York Times on the George Zimmerman verdict was exceptional. When Miss Malcolm pulled Miles in close to her body for the purpose of responding to his immediate need for comfort, I thought about the heartless and brutal vision that Blow assigns to Zimmerman when he writes,

The system failed [Trayvon Martin] when the bullet ripped through his chest, and the man who shot him said he mounted him and stretched his arms out wide, preventing him from even clutching the spot that hurt.

The system failed him in those moments just after he was shot when he was surely aware that he was about to die, but before life’s light fully passed from his body–and no one came to comfort him or try to save him.

In holding my son’s body close to hers, Miss Malcolm let me know that she just might believe that black boys deserve compassionate witness; that black boys need people who see their fears instead of overlooking them in favor of a racist manufacturing of their monstrosity. Miss Malcolm’s gesture suggested to me that she firmly disagrees with George Zimmerman. Zimmerman has such contempt for black boys that he dreams up stories where he makes their dead bodies resemble a crucifixion. I agree with the implications of Jonathan Capehart’s point of view on this one, since there is no evidence, no documentation that Martin’s body was found in the position Zimmerman describes, why doesn’t he have to account for this fantasy? This delusion? Doesn’t this fabrication suggest something meaningful about Zimmerman’s state of mind?

Unlike Zimmerman, Miss Malcolm looked at my black son and saw someone who felt estranged from belonging in this new place. Rejecting the view that black boys who appear out of place should be killed, Miss Malcolm thinks they should be reassured of their right to hospitable arrivals.  She appears to think that black boys should have an opportunity to clutch “the spot that hurt” and help in tending to these often fatal presumptions that they don’t belong–anywhere. Miss Malcolm affirmed that she understood that “Miles’s mother will come back, but in the meantime, I will take care to demonstrate to all concerned that he will live in peace until she gets here.” I tell you, it was a damn good surprise to have someone who sees your black child as having a life worth preserving temporarily responsible for their keeping. She’s a model for how a person might demonstrate their liberal views: You want to prove to me that you aren’t racist, well then how about you showing me that you Always choose to be an Aide and not an Assassin.

2 thoughts on “Models Monday: Black Boys, Trayvon Martin, and the Politics of Comfort

  1. Great post. The atrocities of that horrific day continue to surface…thank you for making that observation about Zimmerman’s self-delusion: seeing himself as an agent of justice and a “hero,” and demonizing Trayvon to the extent that he thought to portray himself as having overpowered and robbed Trayvon of the ability to even comfort himself in his last moments of life. That was the catalyzing fantasy and the clear indication, as you point out, of Zimmerman’s instability, his danger to the community. But, as your post highlights, maybe, just maybe, teachers can more deliberately act as the antidote to the Zimmermans of this world. Miles’s teacher’s gesture should be the norm for all our children–but in light of the persistent and pervasive assaults on the psyches and bodies of black children, they need reassurances of love, nurture, and protection more than ever. I hope Miles had a good first day!

    1. Thanks so much, Sharan, for being a reader and for taking the time to share your ideas here. Black children certainly need protection in this culture where an acceptable vision for their lives may be defined through a “brutal imagination.”

      Miles did have a good day!!! He wants to go back, and Miss Malcolm reported that he had an Excellent day and is ready to receive him…it is certainly a surprise when black children are recipients of civility. EMM

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