When Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida, by a member of the local neighborhood watch, the opinion and editorial pages had a lot to say. There were two recurring themes; reminiscences of similar, albeit non-lethal, experiences, and concerns over how to raise black sons so they stay safe.
I was saddened to learn that many parents of black children, particularly sons, are still teaching their children to respond to authority the way they’ve been doing it for generations. The first line in Yvonne Abraham’s March 29 column in The Boston Globe, Fatal differences, summed it up, “Humble yourself – as quickly as you possibly can.” Parents urge their children to demonstrate that they are not a threat before addressing whatever issue brought them to the authority’s attention in the first place. That’s a lot to ask of a child who hasn’t done anything wrong. If someone accused me of something I hadn’t done, I doubt that I could “humble myself.” I would probably ooze anger. And I’m not a child.
On March 28, Mac D’Alessandro wrote in his Globe editorial, No more ‘yes, sir,’ that after a lifetime of practicing what his parents taught him, “There’s no more room inside to swallow any more pride or dignity, and I have found that anger and confusion have become indigestible.” I’m amazed he made it as long as he did.
Why is the onus on the innocent to be calm and accommodating?
There’s a new book for middle grade students by Cynthia Levinson called We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March. It covers a period in the civil rights movement in Alabama that focused on a strategy to “fill the jails” in order to draw attention to the cause. Schoolchildren answered the call and went to jail. Before they were allowed to participate in the act of civil disobedience that would land them in jail, they were required to attend sessions on nonviolence. It was a good strategy at the time, and I’m not advocating violence, but wasn’t that all done so black people could be treated as equals and not have to behave that way as a general rule?
I had just started reading Levinson’s book when Trayvon Martin was killed. It’s well-written and since it’s told through the stories of four particular youngsters, it will engage the readers for whom it is intended ─ children. But I think grown-ups should read it as well. We need to be reminded how recently these events took place, and redouble our efforts to guard against behaviors we know to be unfair, and uncalled for.
When I was a little girl, I was innocent of anything that went on outside of my immediate surroundings, as are most children. As an adult, I’m horrified to think that while I was happily taking advantage of all my town had to offer, elsewhere other little girls may have been crying because they had to go to the bathroom and the facilities were for whites only.
To think that for all the progress we’ve made, parents still need to admonish their children to be “humble” to avoid the risk of arrest, or worse, is sad beyond words. Why does it take so long to effect change? What is wrong with us?
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Thanks for this important piece, Judy. It’s powerful and resonates deeply with me regarding the injustice that occurs so rampantly. Thanks for your voice.
Thanks so much for sharing this, Judy. You powerfully articulate the rightful rage over injustice that occurs so rampantly. And your inclusion of Cynthia Levinson’s book is so, so apt in this moment.
Thanks, Luke. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I was never driven to write this kind of post again?
Judy, thank you so much for mentioning my book, WE’VE GOT A JOB, especially in such a thoughtful context. I recently had a similar conversation with my sister, whose political views are very different from mine, when she asked me whether a residue of racism and reactions to it linger in Birmingham. Because I don’t live there, I couldn’t answer her question. But, I know that at least one of the people I interviewed for the book is outraged by the Martin/Zimmerman case and another, who told me that he learned to be and remains attuned to subtly nuanced racism, is deeply saddened. My discussion with my sister was fascinating–and upsetting–because we both understood that racism and reactions to it remain; however, while I am both saddened and outraged, she seems suspicious. It’s as if our political intuitions take wholly divergent paths.
Thank you for promoting such interesting insights.
Thanks for this, Judy. Really like your point. Also the detail about the segregated bathrooms. Very poignant in its simplicity.
I just really do not like the fact that skin color still makes a difference.
Humble really hit home for me.
I’ve never been black but I did grow up in a demilitarized zone – B’klyn and Queens, NYC. Playing humble to authority – translation: COPS – was de rigueur. Nobody, then, was taught (by experience or otherwise) to role out the humble pie for anybody else. Fact is, I soon learned that aggression in the face of Zimmerman style aggression was the right way to respond. I suspect that Trayvor, being bullied by Zimmerman , stood up to the prick. Self-righteous wimps like Z are bad; obviously, they are much worse when armed and pseudo-empowered. F him.
Loved the piece, Judy. Really touched me. Keep it up.
Excellent piece, Judy. NPR interviewed people about this issue. The feeling was that the fight should be outside of the situation. Agitate to the media and political figures and the police at other times. In the moment, stay safe. We can cry against it, but if I had a black son, I’d give him the same advice. I’d want him to be alive foremost. I am also saddened by how little has changed. As much change as there has been, too many hearts aren’t open.