I'd claim writing this as entirely my idea, but that wouldn't be fair. Kelly is a friend and a fellow educator who inspires me to be a better and more vocal person. Lord knows I know how to be vocal. I don't know why I'm not in the service of the greater good more often. Hopefully that will change.
Trayvon walks my halls and sits in my classroom, except I've never had a student by that particular name. I have had, however, a Rashad within my walls. A Bobby. A Trevin. An Abdul. A John. A Dmitri. Those are the ones who come to mind, immediately. They are a few of the ones who have worked hard, who have suffered mightily, in many cases, whose attitudes and mileage vary. Those are just a few of the ones whose eyes have looked back into my round, demanding, mouthy white face while I demanded this assignment or that, while I told them to put their phones down, while I hid tears from their stories, who say things like "Professor White, have you had enough of your coffee today?" They want to start volunteer fraternities. They are already basketball standouts, or show up at workouts every day until the coach puts them on the team. They help to support their families, their grandmas, their little brothers. They get worn down and stop coming to class and break my heart. They are the kids (because right or not, that is what I call them, my kids), who sit in my office and who dare, for whom I dare (DARE, as though we should have to now) to ask for more.
When I landed in this spot 11 years ago -- a spot I got because I had an education, and the wherewithal to make a phone call and ask for it, which are no small things in the United States of America even now -- I had no idea I would meet these young men. I had returned from a segregated city in the midwest to my hometown just outside the nation's capital, a place I took for granted as integrated, where I had always known "black friends", not as the cliche goes of rationalizing that I had any, but I just had. I did not understand the implications of an environment where only 43 percent of my male students of color had the averaged out shot of graduating from college. I had no idea I'd meet any of my students, surely, but especially not that I would come to a place where almost all of what I call my entire "organic caseload" would consist of boys averaging 18-24, a group whose ethnic breakdown I haven't figured out, but I'm guessing based on our demographics are majority black, boys who came back to my office after I thought I'd never see them again because I gave them an earful because, I guess, they decided my brand of humor and motivation was what they needed.
And yes, I keep after them. I nudge them -- especially the ones whose eyes particularly engage, who respond to the errant emails -- to tell me their stories. I have walked back to my office listening to weekend tales of incarcerated dads AND brothers, of new jobs at Target and moms headed back to Africa to take care of sick grandpas. I have heard about new websites for dj gigs, a scholarship application they don't quite know how to fill out but can I help, and, on at least a few occasions, out-of-reach college transfer admissions come true.
I do not want any of these young men to die for existing, for walking down a street on the way back to anyone's house, by an animal with a nine-millimeter handgun, whose only excuse is seeing a black boy and being on a fake neighborhood watch. And because that is so, because I have looked into the faces of many young men of color and seen them, known them, heard their stories, it would be remiss for me NOT to ask justice for the young man whose face represents all of them most sadly in that role this week, whose face, I believe, represents a call for justice at a critical time in our history, a time when we cannot afford -- any of us, but especially those of us who are motivated, who have distinct personal reasons not to be -- to be silent.
I ask for justice for Trayvon and his brothers because of one of my dear friends and my most respected colleague, a strong black man raised by a strong black father and the spirit of a strong black mother gone too soon, whose life's work whether he planned it or not is becoming raising up young black men after him, asking for something more from and for them, because he knows it is possible with hard work and with someone in front of you of any color anywhere but especially who look like you, any someones who believe it, telling you that you can, that this is what you, quite simply, have to make come true to the best of your ability. On the day I graduated from my second and most hard won graduate program, a day that meant more to me than most in my life, I looked behind me and saw him -- tall, dreadlocked, smiling, clapping -- alongside my parents and my sister, my only friend or extended family member for that matter who showed up because he knew what this meant to me, and because he knows what an educational achievement means. And my family saw him there, as my friend, and knew him as such, and I knew that meant something to them too. I ask because if this were him or his child, I would tear this building down. I would want to set it on fire. This should not be, and it could.
I ask for justice for Trayvon because of my dearest mentor and friend, whose own child graduated in less than four years from a competitive historically black college on his own merits, surely, but in no small way because she stood over him from the womb willing him, telling him, to be more, and I'm sure in her most private moments praying for providence that he may be all that he was capable of becoming, knowing that he would have to have so much fortitude to excel in a society that would have him believe he was less than, and accordingly he did. I ask because in response to her question I told her in no uncertain high-horse terms that I was not going to see The Help because it was degrading to the history of black women, she said, "Whatever. Please. I liked it. Go see it. That writer, that reporter? Is you. You would have been there then, as you are there now. Shut your mouth and go." And I did, and while it weighted me down and blessed me that she did, and whereas I don't know why she chose me, I am here, partially, because she is always correct.
I ask for justice for Trayvon because I am weary of reading ignorant, disgusting comments online about my president, specific to his race and background. I am tired of reading hateful statements about his wife and children that include derogatory comments about their color and about their physical features that are in some way considered fair game to lump in with racial slurs.
I ask for justice for Trayvon because as the child of bigoted generations I have tried to break the cycle on a smaller, more personal, scale, and it should be done more broadly. As I have stood up to systems and statements and expectations within my family and closer friends, and said many times privately, "Please do not say that. He is my friend," I must say publicly, "I believe that that happened to him because he is black. That should not be."
I ask for justice for Trayvon because of all the reparations that have not been made, because of all the atrocities commited by whites against people of color, and not in spite of the fact that I did not have anything to do with them, but besides it.
I ask for justice for Trayvon because it is a travesty for any teenager in a so-called free country to be killed for an iced tea and some Skittles, sure, but it is even more of a travesty for this crime to be ignored on the level that it has been, for someone to get off that easy for murder. I ask because I believe that people do not understand the cycle of poverty, or the long-lasting impact of systemic racism. I ask because I want my government to do something, to say that this is not okay, for all of the times that that has not happened. I ask because I believe that crimes against black people are considered far less serious on a daily basis than crimes against whites, and because I believe that black people, and other people of color, have far less of a voice within not only the criminal justice system but in general, than white people.
I believe that this is true. I believe that every day I do not say it is one more day too long, and I believe that if more of us said it, if more barriers were broken down, it would solve far more problems in our world than it could ever possibly cause.
I ask because I should and because if I do not, I am part of the problem, and I do not want to be that ever, or anymore.
I am so sorry for the death of this young man, and this was all I knew to do about it. I encourage you to speak out in whatever way you can against the violent assault of any person, anywhere. It should never occur. It should never be.