Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s acquittal are further proof that Obama’s two-term presidency and the spike in interracial marriage have not magically transformed America into some post-racial Shangri-la free of the demons of prejudice and discrimination. The country is post-black, as cultural critic Touré demonstrates in his book Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? Blacks, he explains, are post-black in that they are “like Obama: rooted in but not restricted by Blackness.” Rejecting the age-old myth that there’s only one “legitimate way” of expressing blackness, Touré proves that there are myriad ways of doing so, that each black person is free, as it were, to create her own idiosyncratic black identity. And yet despite this newfound freedom, blacks, he is careful to note, must still contend with racism. Post-black and post-racial are not synonymous.
How much Trayvon Martin, in his brief time on this planet, explored his freedom to express blackness in his own unique way I can’t pretend to know. I don’t know whether he wore that now-famous hoodie that night to protect himself from the steady drizzle, to perform blackness in a particular manner, or to accomplish both ends. What I do know is Zimmerman failed or refused to see Martin’s individual blackness and imagined he was exhibiting a different mode of blackness, a false one fabricated by the kind of racism that led Geraldo Rivera to describe Martin’s clothing as “thug wear,” one that brands any black male strolling through a gated community at night as a likely criminal, as, to use Zimmerman’s words, one of “these fucking punks” who “always get away.” Martin was indeed post-black. Too soon, he was postmortem. We have Zimmerman to thank for that. And we have Florida’s dangerous self-defense laws and the exceptional counsel Zimmerman could afford to thank for his acquittal.
Of course, the defense team received endless assists from the prosecution. The state didn’t use evidence showing that, in the months before the shooting, all the individuals Zimmerman deemed suspicious and made 911 calls about were black. In fact, after the first half of the trial, the prosecution made no further mention of Zimmerman’s propensity for racial profiling. In an op-ed from the July 15 issue of The New York Times, lawyer and NBC News legal analyst Lisa Bloom concludes, “The state was too squeamish to put the touchy issue of race squarely before the six-woman jury.” If the state had called the defendant and his attorneys out on their racism, at a level of intensity the delicate sensibilities of all three parties could handle, maybe the jury would have convicted Zimmerman.
The defense team was shrewd rather than squeamish. To strengthen their case, Zimmerman’s lawyers used racially laden tactics, all the while pretending the case had nothing to do with race. One of its final witnesses was a young white woman who lived in the gated community. She testified that in the months before Martin’s death she’d crouched in the closet, cradling her baby while two black males burglarized her home. The specter of the bigoted stereotypes born of this sort of manipulative image hovered over every aspect of this case. But as the defense played on racist white fears, suggesting Zimmerman was right to deem Martin suspicious since he, like the burglars, was young and black, the prosecution sat quietly, refusing to give Zimmerman’s assumptions the label they deserved: racial profiling. Again and again the defense team’s flaw-riddled account of what happened that night went unchallenged. No one questioned the position of the gun, the necessity of the shot to the heart, nor the fact that the 17-year-old’s body was actually found lying on grass, far from the concrete against which he supposedly smashed Zimmerman’s head. Prosecutors offered no solid alternative to the defense’s chilling narrative in which Martin allegedly pinned Zimmerman to the ground and straddled him, pounded his head against the concrete and lunged for his 9 millimeter. We’ll never know for sure what happened that rainy night in Sanford. We have only Zimmerman’s version of the events. Dead men make poor witnesses. What we do know is that in his closing argument—the prosecution’s final chance to address the jury—state attorney John Guy stubbornly insisted the case wasn’t about race.
The state failed the family of Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman, on the other hand, had the money to secure first-rate counsel because of the thousands of dollars his defense fund had raked in. In this age of Internet outrage, where, protected by anonymity, we quickly sort ourselves into zealous groups, even a man potentially guilty of murder or manslaughter can run a successful crowdfunding campaign. We live in a brave new world, in which the same kind of grassroots contributions that sent a black man to the White House on the strength of unprecedented fundraising success supported the acquittal of a black teenager’s killer.
In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois famously wrote, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” You can’t deconstruct America or even peel back a layer of its culture and history without race surfacing. On a drizzly night Trayvon Martin wears a hoodie on his way to 7-Eleven to pick up some snacks. The hoodie expresses his idiosyncratic black identity; or it doesn’t. White teens around the country sport hoodies, often to borrow a bit of the “cool” of black culture. After Martin’s death, thousands of Americans, of all races, wear hoodies as a show of allegiance, repeating the mantra “I am Trayvon Martin.” But peel back that hoodie, and underneath you’ll find the face of a young black male, sprawled on damp grass, with a hole in his heart. America is post-black. But the color line has not faded.
Dana Crum’s poetry, fiction and nonfiction have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Guernica, AlterNet, Blackbird, The Innisfree Poetry Journal, North Chicago Review, Gumbo, The Source, Carve Magazine and elsewhere. Chicago’s NPR affiliate WBEZ 91.5 FM broadcast a dramatic reading of one of his stories for its Stories on Stage series. The Paris Review Daily profiled Crum in May. Two years in a row he won the Eva Jane Romaine Coombe Writer’s Residency at The Seven Hills School and in March was a Writing Resident at the Vermont Studio Center. Crum is at work on a chapbook and a full-length poetry collection. Read more of his work at www.danacrum.com.