American Skin: Hoping Against Hope

Trayvon Martin

The words JUST-US scrawled across my computer screen and I immediately knew something was terribly wrong. The Facebook post had 20 likes and rapidly increasing as I turned the TV on and read “Not Guilty.” What!? Not even manslaughter? Six weeks before the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech and three weeks after Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was struck down, George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering a black teenage boy. While the verdict was not entirely unexpected, it nevertheless packed the emotional punch of the tragic decision to exonerate four LAPD officers who brutally beat Rodney King in 1992.

The verdict was delivered on a Saturday night so black preachers around the country had to contemplate, what do I say to my congregation tomorrow? How do I use resources from my faith to address the obscenity of racial injustice? As I searched for spiritual and intellectual resources to make sense of the verdict, Chris Pramuk’s Hope Sings, So Beautiful became a wonderful companion. It helped me access a new cloud of witnesses to track the work of the Spirit amidst a racially divided world.

For most black Americans, there is no moral universe imaginable where an unarmed teenage pedestrian can be killed and nobody is held criminally responsible. The message of the verdict was clear: black life is cheap—disposable, like tissue paper. The Sunday morning after the verdict, a sermon titled “Not Guilty!” was preached at my church. “The death of Trayvon Martin,” stated Rev. Damon Lynch III “uncovers the scab on the wound of our ancestors… From Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, 4 Little Girls in Alabama, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner , Oscar Grant and now Trayvon Martin.” After exegeting passages from Genesis, Rev. Lynch proclaimed: All life is valuable.

The acquittal flew in the face of biblical precept. “Dogs have a greater value than the life of a 17 year old teenage boy,” declared Bishop Bobby Hilton at a community forum following the service. Concerned citizens and activists gathered at New Prospect Baptist Church of Cincinnati to express their grief, anger, frustration, sorrow and ponder the question, where do we go from here? The people in attendance instinctually knew that procedural justice is not holistic or substantive justice. Legal justice renders defendants guilty or not guilty. True justice, according to Jesus, exceeds that of “the scribes and Pharisees.”

Black life under American jurisprudence has never been sacrosanct. Blacks were legally defined as property and assigned to second class citizenship. Emmett Till, a fourteen year old unarmed black male in Money, Mississippi, serves as a historical reminder. Emmett went to the store to buy candy in 1955, fifty-seven years later, another young black boy in Sanford, Florida, did the same. Both trips ended in murder and nobody was held responsible; for many black Americans, it seemed little has changed.

Those who accept the defense’s theory that Zimmerman defended himself from black predatory violence miss the broader moral significance of the case. Beyond formal legalism, what was really on trial was not only whether Zimmerman’s actions satisfied the legal statutes of self-defense but a disturbing racial logic that associates blackness with criminality, menace and threat. It is this logic that terrifies black communities because it means that any human being that inhabits a black body can be legally interpreted as a threat.

“One day I might bring a black baby boy into the world, live in a gated community and he will still be killed,” remarked a grieving freshman at the community forum who attends Spellman College. “When I was born” explained a teenage black male, “I already knew I’m not innocent.” George Zimmerman’s actions flowed from a racial logic that makes blackness indistinguishable from criminality. It is a logic that leads many Americans to convince themselves that while whites may commit crimes, black males are criminals. Zimmerman knew nothing about Trayvon’s character, only his color. Color, for Zimmerman, became a predictor of criminal activity. This insight drove Bruce Springsteen to his guitar in Ireland to sing:

It ain’t no secret (it ain’t no secret)
No secret my friend
You can get killed just for living in your american skin

As I processed the verdict with others, the words of prominent Civil Rights leader Ella Baker came to mind, “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest ….”

Part of the struggle to remain vigilant included for me a journey through Hope Sings, So Beautiful. It is a deeply moving text that challenged me to discipline my anger and listen for the “Sound of the Genuine” (Howard Thurman’s term). “Can we all get along?” was the plaintive cry from Rodney King after the unjust verdict in 1992. At the time, many people, including myself, interpreted Rodney King’s words as an effort to mute and temper justifiable outrage at the verdict. Hope Sings doesn’t address this explicitly but after reading Pramuk, I bring a new interpretative lens to King’s utterance. King was not expressing weakness but an eschatological hope— a hope that “pulses beneath the surface of things, calling our freedom forward, inviting us to imagine and make room for another possible future.” (p. 106) It was a graced note that “interrupted our habitual ways of seeing, judging and acting” in pursuit of holistic justice.

Howard Thurman, religious thinker and philosopher of the Civil Rights Era, made a distinction between fate and destiny. Fate is accepting the givenness of our circumstances but destiny, tutored by faith, is what one does with his or her circumstances. If America is fated to devalue black life, the only option in securing black men’s future is to adopt Wayne LaPierre’s of the National Rifle Association moral truism that “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” An armed Trayvon Martin, following LaPierre’s logic, is a living Trayvon Martin.

Destiny lures people of faith in a different direction. As a generation of shocked and grieving black folks took the givenness of Emmett Till’s murder and transformed it into the wellsprings of the Civil Rights movement, my hope is the anger and rage over the death of Trayvon Martin can break open new possibilities for constructive action. Can we imagine a world where a George Zimmerman would approach a wandering Trayvon Martin and simply say “Hey brother, are you lost? How can I help you?”

My fear is this will never be the case. If we remain complacent the racial logic that drove Zimmerman to get out his car and inscribe criminal intent onto Martin’s body will continue to be upheld as a cultural and legal norm and America’s highest ideas about civic equality and democratic inclusion will become more and more elusive, perhaps unrealizable. “God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water, the fire next time!”

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