When I heard the Trayvon Martin verdict last month, I was astonished. I shouldn't have been, but I was. I grew up in Mississippi in the '80s, and my entire family has lived here in the South for generations, so I should have known that George Zimmerman would be found not guilty. I saw that Trayvon Martin was, in some ways, tried for his own death, that the subtext in the courtroom and in the court of public opinion was: He was a thug. He was a threat. He was a violent menace. He deserved it. That in some ways, little baby-faced Trayvon went on trial for being young and black and male. I know this country is rife with racism. I didn't have the heart to actually watch the trial proceedings or any commentary on the case, so I was following all of it on Twitter. When I read that verdict, I was moved to tears, but something about the outcome felt expected. I felt surprise and knowing all at once.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
And then my chest tightened and I wondered if those involved in the case, the lawyers and judge and jury, understood what kind of message they'd just delivered to young black people across the country. Because they did deliver a message. That message was this: Your skin and your hair and your blood and your bones are worth nothing. You are worth nothing. The subtext was clear: Because you are black, your lives are worth less, as are your deaths. I'm familiar with that message. It has dogged me every day of my life. I've grown up with stories of the different ways that message has been delivered. My great-great-grandfather was killed by a group of white men, and of course no one was ever convicted of the crime of his murder. He was working his liquor stills in the woods, and when they came upon him there, they shot him and let him bleed out in the pine straw like a wild animal deemed too dirty to eat: a possum or an armadillo. My grandmother had to hide in the boot of a car along with her brothers and sisters as a child because it wasn't safe for someone of her complexion to be outside in the area where the Ku Klux Klan was so active. My mother integrated her elementary school, and the teachers, she said, treated her and the other black children like a disease.
During my 20s, when I was young and still coasting out of my teenage years, I thought with the blind certainty that most young people feel that nothing bad would ever come to me and the people I loved. In fall of 2000, my younger brother died. He was on his way home from work, and he was hit from behind by a white drunk driver who was speeding more than 80 miles per hour. The drunk driver left the scene of the crime, and in the end, that's all he was charged with: not manslaughter, not vehicular manslaughter, but leaving the scene of an accident. He was sentenced to five years, served three and a few months, and is now free and alive and healthy and happy, able to wake up and eat breakfast and walk out of his front door into the green, great world as he approaches middle age. My brother was 19 and black and poor, his parents a maid and a jack-of-all trades, and therefore, it seems, not such a great loss if he is not able to see middle age. And then within the next four years, from 2000 to 2004, I lost four of my friends, all young and black and male, all members of my poor and black community in the rural South where people keep goats and chickens and horses and are particularly vulnerable to bad luck as the inheritors of over 500 years of systematic racism. So many young black men, dying without cause, from drug overdose and suicide and murder and car accidents. No one is talking about it, here and in the North and the East and the West, unless the families, who feel the loss keenly, speak out.
And that's why I found myself, angry as I was, reading commentary on Twitter about the verdict, because it seemed that not enough people were openly acknowledging the fact that there was indeed a message delivered that night. That black people are told again and again — through media and political doublespeak, by the fact that it's damn near impossible to get good medical care or psychiatric help, by the lack of positive, empowering, beautiful images of ourselves and our black bodies on television — that we are worth nothing. And this message resounds loudest with those left behind to hear it: with the mothers and the fathers and the sisters and the brothers of those dead, the message that their dead are worth only the caskets they are buried in.
What of the survivors? How do they make sense of what they are left with: the memory of their loved one, a bedroom awash in all the detritus of their dead kin's personality, a tattered hoodie that still bears his scent? After my brother died, each member of my family dealt with their grief differently. My cousin who grew up with us like a brother turned gaunt and haunted; he would laugh when no one told a joke. I was a zombie. I would go out in the yard and hug his pit bull, kneel on the ground before it and let it lick my face. I don't know if I imagined it or not, but his dog seemed quieter, subdued after my brother died, as if he spent his days wondering where his owner, the tall boy with butter yellow skin who smelled like coconut oil and hay burned fragrant in the sunshine, went. Less than a year after my brother died, his dog died too. After my mother made all the arrangements and paid for my brother's funeral, she retreated to her house, to her room, like a hermit crab into the innermost chamber of its shell, hiding deep from the big world, from its pressures and messages. How do the people who are left understand who they are?
Trayvon's family decided they were tired of the message. They decided they would speak up, speak as loudly as they could, and try to change it. If it weren't for the attention Sybrina Fulton bought to the case, her tireless campaign for justice for her 17-year-old son, for her child, we wouldn't know his name. We wouldn't know anything of his life or death. He would be another black body, counted and tagged, nameless and voiceless. But now, those who have listened to her understand that he was funny and feisty and brave and foolish and fearful and weak and strong. He was complicated. He was a human being. He deserved dignity. Because she raised her voice, in the end, he is worth everything.
Jesmyn Ward is the author of "Where the Line Bleeds" and "Salvage the Bones," winner of the 2011 National Book Award. Her next book, "Men We Reaped: A Memoir," is due out in September.
Bibliography: Jesmyn Ward
→Where the Line Bleeds (2008)
→Salvage the Bones (2011) — National Book Award winner
→Men We Reaped (2013)