Trayvon Martin and American Exceptionalism

Is a black person’s life worth anything in America? Not as long as America remains “Exceptional.”

Here’s how America is Exceptional: as Joanna notes, a 17-year-old African-American boy, Trayvon Martin, is shot and killed with a bag of Skittles and an iced tea in his hands, by a white man with a gun on “neighborhood watch.”

Trayvon’s trip to the 7-11 was not just a run to the store, but another statistic in the long arc of racialized violence in America. George Zimmerman, who shot Trayvon in his role as neighborhood watch captain and executioner, is, according to his father, “half Hispanic with black friends.” Really? Having a black friend makes it okay to shoot a black person?

Zimmerman, a serial 911 caller, decided to hunt and kill Trayvon after muttering “These A—holes always get away with it” to the 911 operator. Zimmerman even calls Trayvon a “F’in coon” in the 911 recording. As of this writing, Zimmerman is not charged with any crime, courtesy of his friends on the Sanford, Florida, Police department reading of the “stand your ground law” which allows one to shoot if they feel threatened. Last time I looked, a pack of Skittles isn’t threatening, nor can it pack a gun.

Zimmerman and Trayvon are players in America’s ongoing narrative of racial strife and animosity. As a historian of the African-American religious experience, Trayvon’s murder is a sad and familiar tale. A “fearful” white person, complicit white policemen, and a botched investigation all point to white privilege and power, while a dead black child lies cold on a slab for three days in the morgue. The police in Sanford can’t even have the courtesy to check Trayvon’s phone for his mom and dad’s telephone numbers because it’s just a black criminal’s body to them. While Zimmerman the trigger man slept in his bed, the police ordered a drug and alcohol test for Trayvon’s lifeless body. A black body that was representative of evil against the whiteness of George Zimmerman.

I hesitated to write about this story, because there are many good stories about Trayvon and his parents’ quest for justice on behalf of their beautiful child. Yet the cold burning in my heart and head won’t let me leave it alone. So much of what I teach is about the violence and pathos of the African-American experience, that I have to say what is in my heart. It grieves me to know Trayvon died in such a horrible way, but it does not surprise me.

Violence is at the core of much of the African American experience. As a scholar, I know that black lives and bodies are cheap in the psyche of “white America.” If we aren’t dancing, catching a ball, or cleaning houses, we are “othered.” Even with the leader of the nation inhabiting his own skin, the blood of his African father and white mother are a constant reminder to whites that he is Other, and for many, inferior. What could Trayvon expect when even the President of the United States is not respected simply because of his skin color? If President Obama had been the one to walk in a hoodie in Zimmerman’s neighborhood, with no secret service, he may have met the same fate.

George Zimmerman and the Sanford police department are just another iteration of J.W. Milam, Bull Connor, and George Wallace. Honestly, I’m weary of teaching about the deaths of innocent black men and women at the hands of white supremacists. I am damn tired of folks marching in the streets to receive due process and “justice for all”—not just for white people.

So when white Christians start with the American Exceptionalism talk, I want to show them the bodies of black men and women hanging from the lynching trees, the maimed body of Emmett Till, the picture of Trayvon Martin with blood coming out of his mouth that the callous, insensitive police chief Lee decided was perfectly fine to show Trayvon’s father. I want them to look into the abyss of pain that permeates the African-American experience soaked in the blood of our ancestors. I’m sick of the platitudes about Christianity that come from inane pastors who can’t see the blood that runs in rivers throughout our nation. The blood of African Americans deemed expendable by the whims and wills of the white masters. Sure, America is exceptional. Exceptionally racist, and exceptionally violent.

Recently I was asked if I find beauty in anything. I do. At the time the question irked me, and I felt that the person who asked me was being insensitive. I realize now why he will never understand my acerbic tone. When you teach the history of African Americans, it is hard to find beauty in so much painful history. I don’t know where there is beauty in rapes, killings, maimings, poverty, and the specter of violence that haunts our communities, self-inflicted or otherwise. For every good story history, there are 100 awful ones; each more troubled than the last. Trayvon Martin’s murder is just another marker of that legacy.

Despite this history, Trayvon was a trusting young black man, a gift in this day and age. Trayvon was beautiful. It took his girlfriend to tell him to run away when he thought he was being followed. Now, in death, he has joined a cloud of witnesses to the horrors of America’s racist past and present. My hope is that Trayvon’s senseless death is punished, and that it will serve as a painful reminder to fearful white people that their constructed fears of the Other will destroy all of us if allowed to continue unchecked.