It’s almost been a week.
It’s cruel to think that “everything has already been said,” yet it’s tedious to hopscotch from one blustering blog to another. It is a paradox: you want to be part of The Issues, but you also want to solve them quickly, put them to bed. So, you have defriended the truly heinous of your acquaintance from your Facebook and Twitter. And you have expressed your outrage comma world-weary acceptance of the facts. You will vote when the time is come, but for now, you’re a citizen, so what else is there? For you to think, or do?
Boycott Florida? Send money or condolences, like many still do to Sandy Hook? Not to compare very different tragedies, but aren’t the channels for this sort of charity already overflowing? Meanwhile, discussion is in more capable hands. That is, if Congress decides to stop arguing about how they argue anytime soon. Meanwhile, isn’t there a revolution going on in Egypt that we keep – conveniently – forgetting about?
I GUESS I apologize for being yet another opinionated black friend with stock to put in the recent Trayvon Martin verdict. You have my permission to hop or skip away – I hereby release thee, friends and neighbors, from attending this diatribe. So, go! Be free! Or, you know, be kind of free under your tacit, tidy banner of not-talking-about-it, because you’re tired/defeated/angry/lame. But I promise I’m not interested in being vindictive, or pretending I’m bosom buddies with an event that is in many practical ways very far from me (though isn’t that the most frustrating argument invoked by stand-your-ground defenders? “Well, we weren’t there”? It isn’t a court’s job to HAVE BEEN THERE. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have COURTS…)
What I am interested in waxing poetical about isn’t quite ‘race’ either – at least not in the amulet, mike-drop-and-now-I’ve-won-the-conversation sense of the term. The Vague Liberal Social Justice Sense. For the racial aspect of this case seems obvious and unsurprising to me, and whether to think so is jaded, hyper-flinty or Totally On Point, Brother…I don’t care. What’s surprised me most about my own reaction to the Zimmerman verdict (which is, de facto – ha – a racial thing) is how often I find myself thinking about my little brother, who is also a teenager and also wears hoodies. And to reiterate, not “everybody’s little brothers” or “black little brothers everywhere” – I mean, my little brother.
And they don’t really look alike. And yes, my family lives in a posh suburb of our nation’s capital. It’s all sort of a troubling exercise in the goth to make a comparison at all. But it occurs to me that in a case like this, a case tainted with innocence and youth and epitomized in this school photo of a cute little boy…well, one can take it so personally. Trayvon Martin’s death was earmarked from the beginning for national notice in a way that, say, Sean Bell’s, was not. And what we’re seeing on Twitter and Facebook, when friends and non-friends get their panties in a twist and act a fool on either end of the spectrum, is the political becoming so, so, personal – and, by extension, real to most people. The second we start to see our own narratives, our own cast of characters, crunching under the heels of an abstract intangible like a Fraught Justice System, the moment we can paint a familiar face on a tragedy…that’s when we invest. Which is why we’re not reading about Egypt, of course; human tragedy has meaning when it’s about specific humans. Anyone remember this not-too-far-off-point New Yorker piece, The Case Against Empathy? It’s worth noting that the closest we humans get to altruism can be a major drawback, in terms of political action. In terms of actual change. While it’s good to recognize the root of your feeling for another person, it takes a lot more than shaky lip and prayer and hypothetical to effect policy.
But again, to clarify, I’m in no way exempt: I keep getting teary about Trayvon not because my feeling comes from a well of Brotherhood and Justice For All, oh no no no….I get teary for the same reason Eric Holder gets teary. I care about my family. Ta-da, I’m political.
Okay, but, so, I’m being reductive here, and not saying anything especially new in the exercise – in commenting on the online backlash to the Zimmerman verdict, it behoooooooves me to try to account for what it is that’s made everyone (not just my friends!) so precious with their rhetoric. What has made everyone else so invested, in this scarcely singular trial? Why does Juror B37 care so much? Because it’s warm fuzzy platitude country again, that’s why: what we talk about when we talk about George Zimmerman is at heart a discussion of what we – individuals, we – think is right. And what we might have done, or are capable of doing, because we all live in neighborhoods and, presumably, many of us also like the idea of protecting them from (perceived) threat. And lo, everyone is implicated in the prosecution’s stance! For if — as his well-funded coterie of NRA lawyers attest – George Zimmerman was just a guy out to do the right thing one night, and if that argument’s enough to get him out of jail for indisputably killing someone…why, what does that make the right thing? Not for everyone, but for a non-negligible portion of us?
Yadda yadda yadda racism is real, anyone who really tries to fight the opposite is either terminally foolish or never attended an American History class (redundant). I know it’s real because I’ve seen it. So there. But to put a face on the category, I think about the context a family like mine has when dealing with Race In America (capitol letters…). My own upbringing isn’t a history especially fraught with cruelty or disenfranchisement, yet race still matters to me. All the time and everywhere. Chimamanda Adichie has a lovely passage in her new book Americanah describing a bunch of savvy, academic black people sitting in a room watching Obama get elected. It’s poorly repurposed here, but she writes of this wind-up of good feeling that transcends politic quickly; these characters become giddy for something they can’t quite name as they watch the poll numbers go up. And the scene ends when a young Nigerian boy texts his cousin, “I can’t believe it. My President is black like me.” I remember that feeling! It was mine to own, somehow — because I could suddenly paint myself, my loved ones into a White House narrative. And that’s my investment in racial profiling. And this has been my little sidebar on race in America today. Everything we think and do as a nation, I think it comes back to our own vessels — what we look like, where we come from.
But back to the verdict, and how we all reacted to it: America has always enjoyed affecting surprise at its self-sanctioned atrocities. Denial is sort of our lifeblood, we turn blind eyes up and down. But what a citizen can/should/might do about hard-to-hold-on-to structures like Policy and Justice from here, what action comes down to if it isn’t quite empathy and if it isn’t quite fraternity, if it’s not a fat, loaded buzzword at all…has to…begin with talking about it, right? It happened a week ago, but the least you can do is still be TALKING ABOUT IT. RIGHT?
This opinion has wandered, but there’s something in it I swear — maybe we can actually track our politics in how we react. Alone, in rooms. And no one is more reactionary or personal than people caught in the world wide web. The internet is so great, the way it’s designed for us to pretend a million anonymous others care what we have to say. So to my angriest and least informed Facebook friends, my angriest and most informed, hey everyone angry and confused, why? Because it could have been you, somehow? A member of your family? It strikes me as related that the internet – or blog, specifically, in any of its abbreviated forms – was designed with the anonymous, emotional person in mind, and the Trayvon Martin case has invited the most anonymous kind of emotion. Oh how we like to shout into caverns and cower, afraid of the consequences. But we should reckon with consequences here, shouldn’t we? The murky truth swimming just sub our cheerio exterio’s is that all this rambling personal expression dances with a bald hypothetical, and our only way to process tragedy: we could have been one of these people. And that’s why this case is about us, all of us.
It’s most certainly a design flaw, if we can only love the macro through the micro, but it is what we have. We most of us like to talk about ourselves, so keep on keepin’ on, whippersnappers. If it hurts you, tell me where. I guess I just feel like talking.