Saturday, July 13, 2013
It was the summer after I had finished my Junior year of high school. It was a Saturday and I was an unemployed 17-year-old, so I likely had not done anything that entire day. When evening fell, however, I took to my computer screen and fixed my attention on the television playing close by to join my family, my peers, the nation in watching a socially important court decision.
Just 17 months before the court case had aired, a young boy named Trayvon Martin was walking home one night. It was a Sunday and Trayvon, much like me, likely didn’t do anything eventful that weekend. When night had fallen, however, his murder would start a movement that would go down in history.
On February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin while the young teen was on his way home from 7-Eleven. Trayvon was holding a bag of Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea. Trayvon was unarmed. Trayvon was 17. Trayvon was Black.
On April 11, 2012, Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder.
On July 13, 2013, Zimmerman waited anxiously for his six-woman jury to deliver his verdict.
On July 13, 2013, Zimmerman was declared “not guilty.”
The words themselves were like bullets. “Not guilty.” I couldn’t understand it yet, but I knew it hurt. I knew I was angry. I felt cheated but I couldn’t understand it yet. It was my first time.
As did anyone else watching the trial that night, I took to social media. I gave Twitter and Facebook a detailed play-by-play of my frustrations in real time. It was my first time, so the trolls didn’t come for me—at least not directly. I didn’t need any snarky commenter to make a visit on my personal timeline to realize that I was being silenced. Their messages, which were all poor attempts at subtlety, were received rather loudly that night. Amongst all of the tired posts about how Zimmerman’s verdict was well deserved since he was only defending himself from the dangerously unarmed Trayvon, one post stood out to me the most.
In other news, Cory Monteith died.
Word for word, his Facebook post that night has never truly left my mind. He may as well have written “Yeah, we know a black boy was killed but let’s focus on mourning for a life that actually meant something to us,” because it would have devastated me just the same. Word for word, I have never forgotten that post because it carries a wealth of significance. It is both a memorial and a keepsake—my first of many to hold.
Cory Monteith was a star on the American Television Series Glee. Cory died that night due to a drug overdose, may his soul rest in peace. The guy who posted the status was a friend. His words that night are a reminder of the time I was first exposed to the innermost thoughts of the people I called friends. I sang the chorus of Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors that night. It became my personal theme song for a time—at least while it was all still new.
Thursday, June 11, 2015
We were having a catch-up date in the city, my friend and I. It was our first summer out of high school and we had missed each other dearly. We held hands the whole time as we walked down the busy streets, not even budging for the hurried woman in the suit. It was incredibly hot out, so we’d occasionally stop in a store to beat the heat. We chose to make a stop at our usual, the Barnes and Noble on Rittenhouse. We took the elevator up to the third floor and there we picked up my next keepsake—the woman with the grammar wisdom.
Two days before our small reunion I had finally decided to watch the video that all of my colored or “woke” white friends kept sharing to Facebook. It was the McKinney Pool Party Video. I remember watching it and wondering why the video had not come with some sort of warning, for the tears were irrepressible. With each sob I’d whisper to myself, “why,” and “they’re just kids,” as I proceeded to stare at the horrific visuals on my wet phone screen. I was not at all emotionally prepared for what I witnessed. Up until then, I had done a good job of evading these sort of videos—Garner’s fatal choking, Rice’s and Brown’s fatal shootings—so I had no experience. This one was my first.
Again, I felt prompted to take to social media. Still in shock, I posted the video to Facebook urging my friends to watch it because “the black girl [in the video] . . . could’ve easily been me.” Twenty-eight friends liked the post. One man, white, commented.
What makes you think this is about race?
I was mortified. Did he really say that? I couldn’t understand how anyone could try to trivialize this one. The black teens at the pool party were clearly being treated like obstreperous subhumans compared to their non-black counterparts. It was all there and it was obvious.
I was crying again. I could not breathe. My left arm had tightened up, there was a burning sensation in my back and shoulder area, and I began experiencing sharp pains in my chest. Surely this is a heart attack, I thought. It wasn’t—but it was the awakening of a stress disorder that made its home in my body for two and a half months, the remainder of that summer.
The seeing “through a different lens,” idiom took on a new meaning for me that day. I realized that it was privilege that even allowed people to switch out their lens when they needed to. I also realized that those of us who simply saw with our eyes the reality set before us were likely viewed as lucky to even possess such a basic human capability.
So when the grammar lady on the third floor of the Barnes and Noble corrected the sentence I had uttered to my friend, I knew why. Unlike my challenger on Facebook, this woman did see. She saw my friend and I holding hands. She saw the difference in our skin tones. She saw that the rising violence and tension sweeping the nation was “about race.” She saw a threat to her privilege.
I spoke in vernacular that day and the woman corrected me, not to help me, but to help herself—to assure herself that her privilege still stood. She did it to assert whatever power she thought she had over me, just as the fully grown officer in the pool party video forced his knee into the back of the 15-year old girl. She wanted to hurt me.
My friend and I left the scene laughing at my “saltiness.” I was indeed hurt, but not by my grammar lesson. It was knowing that behind his laughter was another friend, white, who would never truly understand what it was like to have someone go out of their way to try and correct what they believed was wrong in me, my Blackness, that cut the deepest. It was knowing that, even if I tried to explain to him that I was targeted because of my race, he’d likely just tell me that I took it the wrong way. Again, they had succeeded in silencing me.
Remembering all of the racially-negative things that have happened to me is a burden, but I’m glad I’ve not forgotten them. These keepsakes of mine remind me that we still have work to do. I look at them and am prompted to speak, to love, to do anything to let them know that they will never again silence me, silence Us.
They say to forgive and forget. I’ve forgiven and I pray I continue to forgive. But with these keepsakes of mine making their home in my back pocket, it seems society has vowed to never let me forget.