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Monday, March 26, 2012

March 26, 2012: Race and Trayvon Martin

[The first post in my series on race in contemporary America. Remember that your suggestions, and guests posts, are very welcome!]

Two American Studies connections, one obvious but central and one more subtle and hopeful, between race and the Martin case.

Since the shocking, unsettling, and disturbing tragedy that is the Trayvon Martin killing exploded onto the national scene last week, it’s fair to say that many of our most talented and significant journalists and social and political commentators (along with many of our least talented ones, of course) have added their perspectives to the conversation. And while those commentators have engaged with a number of important issues, from Florida’s NRA-sponsored “Stand Your Ground” law to the history and role of neighborhood watch organizations, the most eloquent and powerful takes—such as those provided by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jelani Cobb, Dave Zirin, and the Open Salon blogger Keka—have been intimately connected to questions of race; Zirin’s and Keka’s links of Martin to Jackie Robinson and Emmett Till (respectively) are in particular pitch-perfect examples of American Studies analyses of this tragic current event.

I can’t claim to have strikingly new perspectives to add to the mix, but I have been thinking quite a bit about two particular American Studies takes on race and Martin. The first is similar to the “walking while black” narratives on which Keka’s post focuses, but as seen through the lens of empathy, a vital ingredient of the ideal American community for which I have argued many times in this space. One of the most impressive aspects of Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots)”—a song that Bruce and his band played, with no commentary needed, in concert in Tampa this past Friday—is the way in which Springsteen effortlessly imagines himself into the perspective of Lena, the African American mother who in the second verse tries to make her young son Charles “understand the rules” of being black on America’s streets. In my suburban neighborhood, kids wander the streets by themselves for much of the spring, summer, and early fall; it’s almost impossible for me to imagine what it would be like if every time my sons ventured outside, I had to face the possibility that they could be (at best) accosted by the police or reported by a suspicious neighbor, and at worst (which is where any parent’s fears would of course go) killed for no reason other than what they look like. Yet millions of American parents still, in 2012, have no choice but to face that possibility, and to, as Lena does, try to instill it in their kids, even—especially—at an age when their kids should worry about nothing more than skinned knees. Empathizing with that family perspective, and the worldview that it necessarily brings with it, would be a prerequisite to any communal, national connections. (ADDENDUM: This poem, which I discovered after writing this paragraph, is an absolutely amazing expression of this parental perspective.)

As the conclusion to one of America’s most under-rated and important novels reflects, however, such cross-cultural empathy for the worst kind of familial loss can have even more dramatic effects (spoilers in this paragraph!). Of the many tragic events with which Charles Chesnutt concludes The Marrow of Tradition (1901), none is more horrific than the accidental murder of the Millers’ young son; the six year-old is hit by a stray bullet during the novel’s climactic (historically grounded) race massacre, an innocent victim of the brutality directed at his race by the town’s white supremacists. While this tragedy might be seen as the novel’s most pessimistic (or darkly realistic) moment, Chesnutt uses it to frame directly two of his most optimistic, even utopian, developments: his most representative white supremacists, the Carterets, each in their own way empathize with the Millers’ situation as grieving parents and experience profound shifts in their racial and communal perspectives; and the Millers, while not letting the Carterets off the hook for their racist pasts and actions, embody the best of human capability and make a final decision which suggests a potentially better future for these families, the city, and America. Similarly, many historians have argued that the Emmett Till lynching helped pave the way for the Civil Rights Movement, both by inspiring activists and by changing national perspectives on race and community. So too, in this very dark contemporary moment, in the tragic death of this innocent young black man, I believe we just might be able to do the two things suggested by this post, and by President Obama’s pitch-perfect first response: recognize the specific identity and community to which Trayvon must be linked; and respond to his tragedy by moving toward a more genuinely connected national community.

Next post in the series tomorrow,


PS. What are your thoughts on the Martin case? And any suggestions for future posts in the series?

3/26 Memory Day nominees: A tie between three hugely talented, unique, and significant 20th century American writers: Robert Frost; Tennessee Williams; and Vine Deloria, Jr.

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