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All worries in a hurry, I wish I controlled things.
— “FEAR.” by Kendrick Lamar
When 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in February 2012, I went through a period of extreme anxiety and paranoia that I did my best to keep secret.
I was a 21-year-old student at the University of Chicago and wore hoodies almost every day. When Trayvon was killed, I remember being so terrified of being marked as a threat by white people in Hyde Park, I nearly threw all my hoodies out.
Trayvon wasn’t much younger than I was, after all. If someone could justify profiling him as “suspicious” just for wearing a hoodie, why couldn’t it happen to me?
I eventually reverted to my hooded ways, though I did things like smile at people I passed on the street or whistle upbeat tunes — anything to seem less threatening. On a spring night a few weeks later, two middle-aged white ladies asked me not to rob them as I walked past them with my backpack, gray UChicago hoodie, and tiger keychain. I was on my way to a dining hall.
Today, at 31, I still rock a hoodie on occasion.
But 10 years after Trayvon’s death, he’s no longer the one with whom I most identify. That’s because I got to keep living, instead of being frozen in time just out of my teens.
Now I see myself more in Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father.
I have a child of my own, an exceedingly beautiful and terrifyingly intelligent 2-year-old named Maya. She has my curly hair, saucer-like eyes, and penchant for melancholy contemplation. She also shares my Black/Puerto Rican ancestry as well as her mother’s Mexican heritage.
As my daughter grows, I want her to love her afro and embrace the history that lives inside her. I want her to know what she is and to be as proud of her Blackness as I am of mine. Black is what we are, even if it’s not all we are.
But alongside my pride grows the fear that my daughter will one day find herself in situations like those I have been in throughout my life: having her happiness, well-being, or even her life placed at the mercy of someone’s assumptions about her Blackness.
I’m not just talking about some nosy neighbor calling the cops on her for trying to enter her apartment or dorm, because they assume she’s intruding, or a teacher labeling her “too loud” or “too aggressive” for expressing herself.
What if, one day, she ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time with someone who sees her mere existence as a threat? And what if that person decides to take matters into their own hands, as George Zimmerman did with Trayvon Martin?
In the foreword to Jason Reynolds and Ibram Kendi’s book “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You,” Kendi gets at what I’m still struggling with on this anniversary of Trayvon’s death: “Zimmerman’s racist ideas in 2012 transformed an easy-going Trayvon Martin walking home from a 7-Eleven holding watermelon juice and Skittles into a menace to society holding danger. Racist ideas cause people to look at an innocent Black face and see a criminal.”
I know that look. I saw it in the eyes of the police officer who followed me home from a track meet one April night in 2008 when I was 17. He stared me down in my driveway as I explained why I was out so late, his hand resting on the handle of his sidearm.
A mural dedicated to, from left, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, and Ahmaud Arbery behind the Power Circle Barbershop in Tampa. Octavio Jones/For The Washington Post
History has repeated itself enough times for us to be honest about what really happened: Zimmerman, a white Hispanic man, saw a Black man in his community and believed he didn’t belong there.
The notion of the African savage burned into America’s collective consciousness dates back to slavery — a way to justify treating Black people as subhuman, whether that meant mutilating them, violating them, separating them from their families, or killing them.
In the current moment, Black people are told to stop looking for racism in everything. Just don’t wear hoodies or dreads or “thug” styles, people will tell us. Don’t walk around late at night in certain areas. Don’t talk back to or resist the police. Don’t seem threatening. Whatever you do, don’t get angry.
Not adhering to those rules meant that Trayvon and Ahmaud Arbery and Freddie Gray and George Floyd were treated as dangerous on sight. This thinking pushes the blame onto Black people like me for existing in a way that makes someone else feel uncomfortable, rather than placing it on the people making those assumptions about us. It’s up to Black people to preserve ourselves, just as it always has been in America.
It’s that same thinking that drives parents of Black children to have those dreaded conversations with our kids — what to do if they are pulled over by the police; what to do if someone threatens or accosts them because of their skin color. My mom had those talks with me. I’ll have them with Maya. But what then?
What does that mean for those of us who survive, who keep shouldering that ever-mounting burden, wondering if it might be us or someone we love on the news one day? Is it my lot in life always to have best practices in mind for de-escalating hostile approaches from police or others to ensure that I can make it home to my wife and daughter every time I leave my house?
What if I’m the one waiting up all night for my child, only to learn that she died minutes from home at the hands of a vigilante, as Trayvon’s father learned about his son?
What if my wife and I end up as two of those gutted parents on the steps of a courthouse, raging for justice with tears in our eyes because that’s the only thing we can do for the child we lost — rage?
Trayvon would have been 27 this year, about the same age as my two younger brothers. By this time, maybe he would have been married and become a father, too. Maybe he would have ended up making it as a pilot, just as he dreamed of doing when he was a kid. Maybe he would have done something completely different that no one expected.
We’ll never know. Neither will Trayvon’s father.
This content was originally published here.