A Response to Trayvon Martin: Building the World We Dream About
Post by Taquiena Boston, Director, UUA Office of Multicultural Growth & Witness
Someone recently asked me my thoughts and feelings about the Trayvon Martin case. It was not an easy question to respond to. “Mostly, I feel like I need a soft place to land,” I answered first. Because, like many African Americans my age, a part of me just feels tired. When will it stop?
There is a song that comes to mind. Ella’s Song, by Sweet Honey in the Rock. They sing:
We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes
Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons
Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons
Like so many, I see loved ones in Travyon’s familiar face. Trayvon looks a lot like Marcus, the son of one of my cousins. I think about how in the wrong circumstances this could have been Marcus at 17 — another smart, pleasant, happy-go-lucky kid who dressed like his peer group. I’m imagining what it must be like for Trayvon’s parents. It’s hard enough to lose a child in such a senseless act of violence. But then, to know that the person who took your child’s life isn’t held accountable for his actions? It must feel to Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton like they have been told “your child’s life is nothing.”
I also think about my nephews. One just had a son. Is this the future we want for our children? When will the time stop when little boys who approach age 12 won’t have to have “that” talk: be careful how you behave, how you carry yourself, where you are seen. Why can’t you just move around in the world being who you are and not have to worry about someone hurting you because of the color of your skin, your age and your gender?
On top of all these thoughts, what I am struggling with most right now is how much young black men are criminalized in our society. The very things young men may be doing to protect themselves from aggression are the same things that make them targets. For instance, I know that as a teen you want to fit in. That’s just part of being that age. And one of the ways you fit in is by dressing like your peer group, because if you stand out, you can be taunted and ostracized. At the same time, wearing the kinds of clothes teens wear, influenced by the media and celebrities, actually makes these young men appear to some like thugs. Projected on them is this image that they are dangerous, when often all they are doing is being teenagers, dressing in ways that identify them with their own generation.
These have been times that I felt a need to be present in community, and particularly African American community. I need to find comfort and solidarity, and also just know what people are thinking and feeling. I have also sought comfort in my faith community. As a member of All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C., it is a helpful to see that my congregation is rallying around this. They are raising this up as a tragedy, as a time to express solidarity, and a time to move beyond the symbolic.
Symbolism is important. Wearing the hoodie says, “Let’s stop judging these young men and stop projecting this image of danger on them.” But we must go deeper, and take a hard look at the emergence of so-called “stand your ground” laws in numerous states. I equate them with apartheid, with Jim Crow laws, and with vagrancy laws put in place during Reconstruction. With “stand your ground” laws in place, how far have we come really?
We must reflect on how stories evolve in the media. There is such a tendency to create heroes and villains, victims and victimizers. We started with a sweet, innocent photograph of a 17-year-old. Then we saw other images, out of context, that tried to offer a rationale for George Zimmerman’s actions. As a person of faith, I am praying for reactions that focus more on what Trayvon Martin’s death symbolizes than on villainizing George Zimmerman.
At times like this, I am thankful to be a Unitarian Universalist. The work I have done in UU community around racial justice has provided crucial context for understanding how we can still be in this place – and how the case of Trayvon Martin represents an element of racism very much alive in our society. This is a 21st century version of racism that has its roots in a long history of deciding who belongs and who doesn’t, whose life is valued and whose life does not—all based on identity.
When we are faced with a situation like this, those of us who identify as Unitarian Universalist may remember the importance we place on continuing to build the world we dream about. We can put into practice and action all of the anti-racism and anti-oppression work we have been doing. We can appreciate we have the Standing on the Side of Love campaign as a platform to publicly express solidarity; to amplify the voices of Trayvon Martin’s family and community, and other communities whose children are victimized and targeted in this way.
Let us continue to use this moment as an opportunity to talk in our congregations about what our role is as UU’s in shedding light on this kind of racism in our society. Let’s examine how youth of color in our congregations can fully know that their congregations aren’t only sympathetic to what they face in their lives daily, but also truly safe spaces of support and caring for them.
All of this is the work of our office—Multicultural Growth and Witness—as well as other offices at the UUA. To help congregations create the capacity to minister effectively, and to provide a container and tools for congregations and communities to reflect and act.
If you are interested in deepening your congregation’s multicultural journey, increasing your cultural competency, and engaging more deeply in anti-oppression and anti-racism work, the UUA has resources to help you do just that. Click here to learn more.
Director, UUA Office of Multicultural Growth & Witness