Friday, March 23, 2012
Memory and the Murder of Trayvon Martin
It was during the mid-sixties. Occasionally I worked for a church member who owned a gas station in west Nashville, Tennessee where I grew up. His son was a friend of mine. We were responsible for pumping gas, washing customers’ cars, changing wiper blades and other menial tasks. One Saturday my friend and I were in the next bay changing the oil in a car while a notorious west Nashville local was regaling the mechanic with tales of what he would do to civil rights protestors if he got the chance. This was, of course, at the height of the civil rights movement. Nashville and its major African-American educational institutions, Tennessee A & I and Fisk College had been at the center of the protest. After visiting murder and mayhem on the heads of the protestors the man boasted that he had killed two black men in his time. “Of course,” he grumbled, “that was back when it was still legal to kill a black man.” He actually didn’t say “black man”. He used an enduringly offensive term of diminishment and opprobrium. I had always heard the phrase “my blood ran cold” but I did not know what it meant until that moment.
This is not an incident I willingly recall. But it came to mind when I heard of the murder of Trayvon. In the south of my youth young black men could be beaten and lynched for looking at a white woman the wrong way. They could be imprisoned for minor offenses and brutalized by prison guards. Thousands went to their deaths at the hands of shotgun wielding “bulls” at hellholes like Louisiana’s Angola Prison. We are naïve if we imagine that the fear and bile of those years has been drawn like poison out of our system. When a young man is murdered and the authorities react with reasoned indifference we are reminded of those days in the South, and not only the South, when killing a black man or woman or child was legal. And in different parts of the country it could be Mexicans or Chinese or Native Americans who were brutalized and murdered. And if a sheriff or police chief had the courage to charge a murderer, juries routinely acquitted them.
In the giddy days after the nomination and then election of President Obama there was a great deal of loose talk about a “post racial society.” But the vilification and misrepresentation of the President almost from day one should have put the lie to such optimistic posturing. The attacks on President Obama have gone far beyond ordinary political differences. To this day people doubt his religious affiliation and his citizenship—among other things. Contrary evidence has no impact on the narrative they have constructed. They see him as an alien, threatening presence, illegitimately occupying the Oval Office. I do not say this to support the President’s policies or his re-election. Those are separate matters. I say this rather to illustrate the deep-seated antipathy to the “other” occupying the highest office in the land. President Obama is like Trayvon Martin—he is in the “wrong neighborhood.” I know there are many principled opponents of the President who on proper political and ideological grounds oppose his administration. Fair enough. In a democracy this is not only to be expected, but is required. But his election, I contend, rather than signaling a post racial society, has stirred up some of the most fetid and ugly parts of our national identity. This is what needs to be addressed with repentance, tears, and frank condemnation. Too many bullets have killed too many of our children. All of us, Democrats and Republicans, citizens of the North and the South, African American, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, and white (whatever that is), need to speak truth and pursue justice. Wendell Berry called racism America’s “hidden wound.” Today that wound is festering openly for all to see. God have mercy upon the family of Trayvon Martin. God have mercy on us all.
John E. Phelan, Jr.