In the tragic murder of Trayvon Martin, there's no safe place. There's no real excuse to cling to. None of the usual dismissals work or fit. It's just bad. Real bad. And sits there and stares at you with it's cruelty and unfairness and ugliness and says, "Take this."
Take this load. And pick it up.
Take this burden and just accept it as your burden. It's just "how it is." You're all statistics. Take these statistics. And black people get shot everywhere everyday by everyone. Police. Non-police. Crazy people. Bigots. Their parents. Other kids. Just take it. It's part of your Life In America, Black People. Accept this tragedy and go through the motions of appealing to people's decency and demanding justice and having protests and press conferences and crying and asking why and demanding answers and then eventually getting that bad dead cold thing that just sits there and says, "Take this."
Here's your load. Pick it up.
Pass it along to the children, so they can carry a bit of it too. Let it weigh down on their worlds. Let it rob them of their childhood and innocence. Tell them to take it, so they grow up faster and accept the unfairness in life and just give up. Be cynical and fatalistic. Be cold when it happens to the next person. Or be cold themselves when they do it to another person. And as they rob that person of what was once robbed of themselves and that person asks them why or looks for recourse or retribution or answers, they can stare back unblinking in the shadow of our common oppressors and say, "Take this load and pick it up."
But I'm sorry. I'm not going to pick up this shit anymore. It's not mine.
A long, long time ago when I was young my parents told me I had to be the best to make it in this world. Averageness was something only the white and the male could afford and as a black woman, I was neither. You had to take pride in how you dress and how you spoke and how you behaved. You had to be "good," because good things happen to those who are good and bad things happen to those who are bad. And that's the lie your parents tell you because no one should tell the truth to you when you're that young. You really don't need to know. Otherwise you'd never bother.
Who wants to deal with someone already jaded at age six?
And so I was good. I was so very good. I didn't curse. I got good grades. I've never been in a fight in my life. The one time I got Saturday detention was because I was chronically late for a third period class in an over-crowded school where the only time you could go to your locker was during lunch to switch out books for the second half of the day and my locker was on one end of the crowded school, far from the other.
My teacher didn't believe me when I told her I couldn't leave lunch, go to my locker, then wade through the hallway crammed with kids to make it on my class on time.
She told me I was lying. She said she walked it once just to see what I was talking about and timed herself. But since she had to be in class waiting for me and other students, I highly doubted she did that at the height of the lunch rush.
It didn't matter that I loved my Spanish class and was an A student and never caused trouble and had no reputation for someone who would ever be tardy for anything as I was obsessed with being "good." She just didn't believe me. My mother had to get involved and my locker was eventually moved to a place easier for me to navigate to.
I was never late for third period Spanish again. No one apologized.
That same year, the eighth grade, my history teacher moved my seat in the front of the class to the back with a pair of boys who harassed me, teased me and made trouble with me every day. Then, because I'm near-sighted, my vision worsened and I needed new glasses. I couldn't read the blackboard. I told my teacher of both, the harassment and the inability to see.
He, oddly, agreed I was being harassed, but thought I was "weak" to complain. As for my inability to see, he told me I was lying.
Even though I wore glasses. We got a doctor's note from my optometrist that I needed new glasses and should sit up front until they were ready.
The teacher suddenly decided everyone in the class could sit where ever they wanted.
He never apologized.
My mother, far more blunt than I, called it what it was. I was black. My teachers were white. The school was mostly white. It was racism. Even though all my teachers, even the jerk ones, thought I was a bright and talented student who was polite and respectful. They would lose my extra credit homework on purpose rather than add it towards my grade, lest I test higher than whoever they would always hope would beat me when the boys would play the girls in History Bingo.
But as annoying as all this was for me. For other kids in my public school experience it was far worse. Boys who defended themselves when picked on by bullying the school ignored until it got to a breaking point? Suspended. Kids who fought back or spoke up when they were being picked on, abused, harassed or marginalized? Sent to the "alternative school."
But see? In my child mind, I tried to rationalize this. They were "bad" because the talked back or actually hit their tormentors. I was "good" because I took the abuse. And my "goodness" was rewarded in that I graduated in the top 25 percent of my class, but was still judged with the same suspicion all black kids were judged by at my school.
What difference really was there between I and my peers who had dropped out or wound up in halfway houses or jail other than I picked up the load and just thought about Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King, Jr. the whole time? I picked up the load and they wouldn't. But who could ever want that load of shit? The only difference was I still believed goodness would be rewarded. If we all, as a people, were just "good" they'd have to stop accusing us of lying, assuming we were "bad" or criminals or ignorant. W.E.B. DuBois and the Talented Tenth and lead by example and all that rose colored lens malarky.
That if we're just "good" we'll be safe. If your son doesn't listen to hip hop, goes to the church camp, gets A's and Bs in school, is polite, says "sir" and "ma'am," if he's a good kid, he'll be safe. That's the bargain black parents make with their children.
If you are "good" the gangs and the violence and the racism won't get you. You will be safe. You will live to see 25. You will have a great life. Opportunity will abound for you. We will be proud of you. The community will be proud of you. You will be Barack Obama and Michelle Obama and life will be beautiful if you just want it enough.
Just be "good." Be good, Trayvon Martin. Stay in school. Listen to your parents. And you'll be safe.
But that's a lie. No one came make you safe. No one can save you for that day some sick person just decides you're the bad guy because you're black and carrying a bottle of ice tea and some Skittles and he self-appointed himself neighborhood watch and some black teenage boys aren't good, therefore ALL BLACK PEOPLE ARE NOT GOOD. And you are a black person. And you're a boy. And you had on a "hooded sweatshirt." So, you're dead now.
Sorry. You didn't follow the rules. It wasn't good enough to be "good." Why didn't you just apologize to that man for existing as he had you on the ground, gun pointed at you? Say you were sorry for being born black and apologize for all the black people in the past who may have ever thought of robbing that neighborhood or doing whatever things George Zimmerman, 28, thought black people in Sanford, Fla. were doing in his neighborhood.
Maybe if you'd just taken it and accepted that it's Zimmerman's world and only his comfort matters and not yours, you would have got it. Maybe your parents could have been more paranoid. Kept you locked up in the house until you turned 25 (gotta keep you from being a statistic). And then ...
And then ... What? Then what?
If you have a child, what do you tell them? Especially him. What do you tell him? How do you tell him as his mother or his father or his grandmother or grandfather that you, the person he loves and trusts and believes in more than anyone in the world, that you can keep him safe? How does he believe you now? He knows you're full of shit now. He's on Facebook. He's heard and read about Trayvon. Someone who looked like him. Someone who was "good." How do you tell him that if he just stays in school and is "good" it will be OK? How do you tell him to handle something like this? Not a cop, just some guy. Some crazy self-appointed neighborhood watch guy with a gun who thought he was Batman that night? If you're a good parent you tell your kid that if some guy, some scary guy is following them, you tell him to run and if he can't run, to defend himself. Bad men in cars to terrible things to children and teens. You tell your son, if you can't run, if you can't get help, do whatever you have to do to stay alive. Fight, run, call out for help, make yourself trouble. Go down fighting, if you're going down. Don't do the thing the stranger in the car with the gun wants you to do.
But that doesn't keep you safe.
And the cops are so worried about how Zimmerman feels and thinks -- and their precious "Kill Your Neighbors" laws, but not how a 17-year-old would react to a stranger following him in his car at night. Not how anyone in Trayvon's situation would react.
I know how I, as a 5-foot-3-inch woman, would react to some strange man following me in a car.
The cops say maybe Trayvon would have done something "differently" if he could do it over again.
Do what? Not be born black in America where black men are viewed with suspicion no matter their age?
People, and by people I mostly mean our society as a whole, tells us that if we just do the right things and follow the rules we will be safe and our kids will be safe. But these things are lies. The onus is not on the victim to wear a longer skirt when she goes out on night. It's on the guy who thinks it's OK to rape her.
The impetus is not on the kid walking home from the 7-11. But on the self-proclaimed, gun-wielding, one-man-neighborhood watch, calling the Sanford Police more than 40 times in the last year. It is not Trayvon's job, or your job or my job to make bigots feel more comfortable with us because there is no way to get their comfort. It is a lie.
No amount of goodness will fix it.
You could get rid of every thing that has ever made you feel embarrassed, every black person you ever felt fulfilled a stereotype. It doesn't matter. Because racism is illogical. Bigotry does not need a reason to fear and act on that fear with violence. There is no different clothing you could wear. There is no different accent you could take on. There is no grades you could get that could change them. Because it doesn't matter.
We can't Jackie Robinson our way out of this. Some people just want to hate you. And they don't want to change. But they really enjoy you going through the gymnastics trying -- because it takes the weight off them.
Don't apologize -- Because it doesn't matter.
In St. Louis, my hometown, folks in the county would say, it wasn't that they didn't like black people it was the "quality" of the black people. Why? If it were Cosby-esque doctors and lawyers moving in next door in the suburbs they'd feel just fine.
Then, when my family and tons of other black professional families moved to the 'burbs, they fled to O'Fallon and St. Charles anyway.
But you said doctors and lawyers were "OK?" I guess bigots lie. It wasn't really about the "right" kind of black people. Ha ha. You were "good" too, weren't you? Cute. Didn't mean anything. Didn't mean a damn thing.
My favorite book, Invisible Man, tells of Anonymous and there is a letter in that story that haunts me as it haunted the unnamed narrator that says "keep this nigger boy running."
And that's what they do to us. They keep us running. They keep telling us it is us. That if we just made ourselves a little different, it would all go away. If we're just good.
And then, in our goodly and true lives, they give back to us the corpse of a 17-year-old boy and say --
Pick it up.
Before Trayvon's murder. Before now. Before I was even 25. I realized it didn't matter what I did. It didn't matter what any of us did. And so I decided, I was just going to live my life, however I saw fit. And that was my protest to an unfair world. That I didn't care about their "rules" anymore, whomever "they" may be, because their rules were lies. I would be good to those who were good to me. I'd do what was right for myself and those I loved. I wasn't going to be ashamed of who I am because it might check a stereotypical box.
Still, though. I wondered.
A woman, much older than I, who I've known most of my life, used to say "I feel like my purpose in life is to make white people mad." I used to think that what she said sounded really silly. She was born under Jim Crow (hence her tendency to talk of white people as if they're monolithic) and was a long-time housewife. All she'd ever done was marry a nice guy and have lovely children. She'd lived a quiet, sweet sort of life, isolated from most of the drama anyone -- white or black -- ever has to deal with. I thought the statement was awkward and short-sighted and weird. I would smirk and brush it off. What the hell was that supposed to mean? You're not Angela Davis, I'd think. No one is shaking in their boots at night, worried about the fur coat wearing black housewives of Florissant, Mo.
Then, in a conversation with a friend of mine, Dr. Jason Johnson, I told him of what she said and he actually argued my pampered housewife had a point.
To paraphrase: "When you really think about it," he said. "What she did ... falling in love, getting married, staying at home and raising her children ... that's not what she and her ancestors were brought to this country to do. We weren't brought here to go to college, fall in love, get married and live our lives. We were brought here to work and live the lives others wanted us to have."
Jason said our lives as free people is a protest to this society that criminalizes a boy just for being black.
Our love for each other. Our community. Our friendships. Our bonds are a form of protest.
Because we aren't doing what we were brought here to do.
To this end, I say, if you ever thought about not doing, loving, saying, being something that you wanted to be because you were worried about what "society" would think, stop thinking that way. There is nothing you can actually do. All you can do is live your life in the most honest way possible. Be good to those who are good to you. Love whole-heartedly. Care for your friends and family. Follow your dreams. You can't waste any bit of your short, precious time on this Earth worrying about what some unknown bigot thinks.
Or what anyone thinks.
Because it is beyond your control.
And there is no path that promises your child will be safe. And this is the world that we live in. But you don't have to accept anything.
Not. One. Damn. Thing.
And you don't have to take that load and just accept the racism and injustice and crime and rape and murder in our world. Nobody owns you. They can't make you accept that tragedy as just "part of your life."
When the murderer pulls out the gun and takes a life and puts it back on you. You say no, you murderer. That's your load. Pick it up.
You did it. Deal with the consequences. Whatever those may be.
Us and our children are not picking it up anymore.