Reflections on Being a Black Man in America
I have been sitting at my computer screen trying to figure out how to put into words what is swimming in my head and churning in my heart. I have started, stopped, deleted and begun again several times. I don’t think there are words, but here they are nonetheless.
As a Black man, who grew up around Black people most of my life, who majored in African-American Studies in college, who works with a Christian non-profit to help reach Black college students, I must confess, I am torn:
– As a Christian. My heart goes out to the Martin family. Their son is gone. Nothing will change that. Travyon’s life has been cut short. His departure for an Arizona Tea and skittles from the store would be the last time his parents would see him alive. No parent is meant to bury a child, regardless of ethnicity. Their faith remains but so does the pain. My heart goes out to George Zimmerman as well. I do not believe he is as guilty or as innocent as he is made out to be (more on this later). His life, too, will never be same. He will have to move, change his appearance, virtually disappear from public for the rest of his life. The venom that spews on social media pages when the names of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman are mentioned is appalling. It is a chilling reminder that both “we war not against flesh and blood” and that “Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.” All sins, even the ones we don’t like must be laid at the foot of the cross of Jesus. It is my faith that I must hold on to as I am a Christian first, and then whatever society has chosen to label me.
– As a Campus Minister. I believe college is a pivotal moment in a person’s life. People are wet cement in college. Learning, discovering who they are and who they want to become. Ages 18-22, people are soaking in everything, but soon thereafter, that wet cement will harden and most will become who they will be for the rest of their lives. I work to advance ministry to Black college students in Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma. My hope and belief is God has sent me here to accomplish this task. Trayvon was 17. He didn’t make it to college. We don’t know if he would have. Mainstream media has portrayed him as a marijuana-using, quick-tempered “troubled youth,” and probably not a college candidate. (I know and had classmates that did “worse” than Trayvon in character and accomplished more during and out of college than I have.)
How do I reconcile that? As I pray for the class of 2017, I pray knowing there is an empty chair in a classroom, a bible study he will never fill. How do I mentor students I serve that are his age? How do I help the staff I serve have these conversations with Black students?
– As a Black Man. My heart is heavy. It was five years ago I wept when the nation elected a bi-racial president whose skin complexion resembled mine. It was an achievement of a dream I didn’t believe possible. It was a time when Black grandparents and parents wept with joy because the road of integration, civil rights and equality culminated with a bi-racial man married to the descendant of a slave being sworn into the highest office in the land, on steps that were laid by slaves. Five years later, I see and hear those same parents and grandparents being reminded of what life was like for them when they were Trayvon’s age (17) and my age (30).
I am not here to argue the trial or the court’s decision, but to extrovert the consequences.
Nathaniel Hawthorne in his timeless classic, The Scarlett Letter, says in the first chapter, “In our nature, there is a provision, alike marvelous and merciful, that the sufferer should never know the intensity of the pain to which he endures by its present torture, but by the pang that rankles after it.”
Life will return to normal for many people in a few days. Conversations will be had this week on if people agreed or disagreed with the court’s decision and why. We may discuss the strangeness of Florida (i.e. 2000 Presidential Election, Casey Anthony, now George Zimmerman—no disrespect Floridians as Texas has some strange cases, too).
But life as a Black person, particularly me as a Black man, will never be the same. This court case has reaffirmed that I cannot go alone into environments where I am the only Black person, especially at night. I must dress my best at all times, even when I go to buy candy from the store. If someone questions my presence at any location, they are now justified to be the police. They can follow me (even when the police say not to), question me, and I cannot do anything. If I become angry for being followed, if a fight for whatever reason begins, my life can be taken away without consequence.
Black people didn’t rally behind the Martin family simply because they were Black. We…I rallied behind them because I have been Trayvon. I am followed in the grocery store, department stores, the mall, neighborhoods. I am regularly pulled over, followed by the police more times than I care to comment (in different cities, too…and no tickets or accidents in over 5 years). My first day in Austin, Texas a UTPD police officer walked toward me with his hand on his gun to confirm I was an enrolled student at the University of Texas at Austin as he thought I was robbing my white roommate of his bicycle. He confirmed my identity and never asked for my roommates.
I am not oblivious to the plight of young Black men today. Many of them are without fathers, angry and have a host other issues that I have dealt with and deal with daily. I do not believe George Zimmerman was a prejudiced man looking for trouble. I do believe there was an innocent, unarmed teenager who was followed by someone carrying a gun and felt it was his civic duty to protect the neighborhood where the police had failed. He bought into what the media sells, which is a kid in the hoodie has to be up to no good. Escalation, a fight, and now there’s dead teenager at the hands of a man who claimed self-defense. As one pastor said, “How cool would it be to live in a world where Zimmerman offers Trayvon a ride home to get him out of the rain that night?”
After the court’s decision, I was up until 1:30am talking with four other friends—Black friends—about our experiences on cross-cultural interactions—the good, the bad and the downright painful.
Reading books, having conversations, these things are helpful, but much like they limit how much I can learn about one culture, so too do they limit what it means to be Black in this country.
Being Black in America means there is a consistent, negative portrayal of our culture in the media. We are dehumanized, portrayed as out of control, uneducated, dangerous menaces to society—only. Rarely positive, never accurate portrayals of the totality of Black culture. We are violent and prone to riot, but can be killed if someone…anyone feels we are in the wrong place and their lives are in danger. It means a proclivity towards higher arrests (not that Blacks commit more crimes as they make up only 11% of the US population), but because we are arrested more frequently and sentenced for lengthier terms than our white counterparts (read The New Jim Crow by: Michelle Alexander). It means changing my clothes, my walk, my very speech pattern when in cross-cultural environments to honor those around me at the sacrifice of my own culture, regardless whether that sacrifice is higher in some places and lower in others.
It is an invitation to be misunderstood at every level, in every conversation.
And it is the cross we as Black people are called to bear.
My fear is that we will have to bear this cross in its entirety, until the return of Jesus himself.