An editorial yesterday in the student newspaper at the university where I teach was headlined: "There's a reason so many students marched for Martin." For the first instant when I first read it I thought, that's odd to have a march for Dr. King now. And then I quickly realized it was a telling mistake. The students - all wearing hoodies - marched in memory of Trayvon Martin, of course, the 17-year-old whose fatal shooting in Florida has sparked outrage, protests and discussions about race and racism across the nation.
I'm not one for silver linings, but I am a teacher and a parent. This young man's horrifying, senseless death offers our country an important opportunity to take it personally, to take stock, to see what his death means in our daily lives.
Depending on who you are - your age, race, gender, where you live, your geographic history, your background, socio-economic status and life experience - this young man's death may mean different things to you. That in itself should be a crucial part of our national conversation.
Does it matter to you?
It should be obvious that you don't need to be an African-American parent of a teenaged boy who wears hoodies, talks to her girlfriend on a cellphone, eats Skittles and drinks iced tea to take this death personally.
This is why I'm moved by the hundreds of students - of all hues, from all backgrounds - from my school, wearing hoodies, marching, grieving, talking and singing for Trayvon Martin's life and death. And it's not just my students. It's hundreds of thousands of people all over the nation, signing petitions, organizing community conversations, asking why, how is this possible, could it happen here? It's hitting all of us right in the gut, right where it should hit us as a country. Nationwide there are "hoodie marches" going on.
Trayvon Martin and Dr. King
It feels right to me somehow that for a split second I thought the march for Trayvon was a march for Dr. King. They are connected; not only by color, violent death and symbolism but by possibility, unity and soul searching.
So while we're all thinking, talking, teaching and grieving about the fatal shooting of this young man, let us be brave enough to honor his life give meaning to the meaningless of his death by asking what does his death look like in our lives, every day. What incidents do we see, hear; what comments do we tolerate, what bigotry, racism, intolerance to we bear witness to in silence? What biases and prejudices do we harbor in some protected space within our own sanctimony and self-delusion?
What 'them' do we disdain?
As a teacher and a mother, I feel morally, ethically and pedagogically compelled to teach and participate in the discussion playing out on a national scale by prompting similar conversations at my kitchen table and in my classrooms. As teachers and parents, we should mindfully pull from the national wave of painful but honest discussions sparked by this horrific death by connecting the non-lethal (but still incredibly hurtful) incidents of bigotry, bullying and intolerance that occur in our own families and schools every day.
I hope the special prosecutor genuinely seeks the truth and moves swiftly for justice in Trayvon's case. That is not within my control. What is in my control - and within the control of all of us - is what meaning we make of this death; what questions we force ourselves to ask and to wrestle with every day. There is more than enough for us to deal with on this score in our daily lives - at work, with our children, in our neighborhoods.
Bullying, Bigotry in our Daily Lives
My daughter's middle school is struggling mightily with a bullying incident that would make your hair stand on end. They are on it. And we, as parents, must be on it. Parents are talking to each other, to our kids, to the administrators. We are finding ways as a community to protect our children - from each other, and from themselves.
And at work, we recently had an incident on our university campus. A Latina student was accosted by a group of white female students who rolled their r's and mocked the language they assumed she spoke. They followed her down the street and harassed and tormented her.
Luckily, she was brave and not only reported the incident to the authorities but wrote about her experience in the campus newspaper and spoke about it in campus meetings and community-wide conversations that resulted from outrage. She could have been silent, or silenced. But she spoke and people listened. It was hard to hear. Silence would have been harder. The discussions are ongoing because the root causes are ongoing. The solutions can feel as challenging and complex as the problems.
The students who wrote the editorial in our school newspaper offered this perspective:
"Though the vigil addressed an occurrence that was far away from Evanston, its theme should resonate close to home. Tyris Jones, spoke first at the event, saying, "We're sending a message that we are Trayvon Martin." That message, spoken here and across the country, conveys more than just solidarity. There are people on this campus who connect to this story because they personally relate to it. That truth has been hard for the NU community to acknowledge over the years, even when confronting it head on in specific incidents."
We must keep talking, keep working, keep pushing for structural, systemic and relational change. We must fight on behalf of whoever the 'other' is because to somebody, we're ALL THE OTHER. We are, indeed, all Trayvon. So let's learn a lesson from these students: put on your hoodie and start talking and listening.