The Black Mother's Burden
I do not know Sybrina Fulton. Nor can I claim to understand the depth of her pain. Yet, we share a deep connection. A commonality experienced by those women who face the challenge of raising a Black male child in a nation that far too often views Black male bodies through a prism of fear. You see, Ms. Fulton is living my nightmare. A constant worry that has lingered in the back of my mind since the birth of my eldest son, some sixteen years ago.
Through the years, I have witnessed the world's reaction to my son evolve as he has grown from a small boy to a young man. In his early years, his easy smile and engaging personality were nothing less than magnetic. Complete strangers would approach him in the street, engage him in conversation, and find themselves easily smitten with his vivacious spirit and endearing charm. Even at that time I worried, how would my son react when in the years to come some of those who found themselves so impressed by this cute, intelligent boy, might grasp their purse a little tighter as he walked by. How might he internalize the daily weight of being viewed by complete strangers as an individual worthy of immediate suspicion?
Over the years I have sought to shield his spirit from the hurt that comes from undeserved hatred. And while trying to protect him from emotional pain, I have also sought to arm him with the knowledge that could one day save his life. He knows, for example, that if he is ever pulled over by the police, that he is to keep both hands on the wheel at all times and only reach for his license and registration when the officer is specifically observing his actions. He knows, even in less menacing situations, that rough play and loud interactions with his buddies of any color will be viewed very differently when he does it, than when his white friends engage in the very same behavior. He knows that on a daily basis, he must exhibit a level of maturity and self control well beyond his years in order to in some way subdue the negative perceptions that could at any time come his way. Still, the truth of the matter is, no amount of advice or muted behavior trumps the physical, immovable fact of the color of his skin and his athletic six-foot frame. His intelligence, easy smile, and endearing personality won't protect him from unfounded assumptions of criminality or the weight of having to justify his presence at any time, in any setting, by anyone who may for any reason feel uncomfortable with him nearby.
What makes the Trayvon Martin travesty of justice so piercing to me, personally, is the knowledge that Trayvon's mother loved her baby no less than I love mine. The various pictures of moments throughout a happy childhood that have now found a home on nationwide newscasts provides clear evidence of that. Yet no amount of love and care, and no words of advice could have saved her son from the brutal execution he faced at the hands of a murderous self-appointed neighborhood watch-dog. And perhaps even worse, nothing could have prepared her for the callous and dehumanizing way her son has been treated by law enforcement officials even in death. To think for three long days, his parents searched for him while officials failed to notify them of his fate and instead, performed drug and alcohol tests on his lifeless body, while failing to do the same for his attacker—the only one of the two who indeed had a criminal past is frankly, unforgivable. To know that the words of her son’s murderer were given more weight than eye-witnesses and taped evidence of her child's screams and eventual demise must be heartbreaking. But to also have to live with the fact that his attacker still breathes free while her son lays buried in his grave is certainly more than any grieving parent should have to endure.
It is this type of pain that is not unfamiliar to the Black experience in America, for this is the Black mothers' burden. A burden we have endured for centuries. We know the pain of having our newborn babies ripped away from our loving arms to be sold into lifelong servitude and to never again experience the warmth of a mother's loving embrace. We know the pain of Jim Crow justice, the days when murderous actions were routinely met with law enforcement neglect if not complete complicity and overt involvement. Yet, there is still the rightful expectation, that in modern-day America, the wheels of justice would not be so blatantly and callously thwarted. Certainly, when the co-sponsor of Florida’s now infamous “Stand Your Ground” law publicly stated that his legislation does not justify the actions of George Zimmerman who on that fateful day nearly one month ago, appointed himself judge, jury, and executioner of an unarmed child, no justification remains for one more moment of freedom for the perpetrator of this murderous act.
So today, it is my hope that Trayvon’s mother, father, family and friends can take some solace in the fact that millions of Americans of every color stand with them in their fight for justice. This is a burden no family should have to endure alone.
We will not give up.
We will not forget.
We will continue the fight until justice is done.