From Native Son to Invisible Man: Reflections on Trayvon Martin and Rearing a Black Man-Child in America

Early this morning I was drafting a guest blog post about what it is like to be a new wife and mother. The wife version I completed, and just when I was to start drafting the part about raising a son, I read several posts and articles about Trayvon Martin’s murder. And I read Sheree’s FB post that ignited my heart and fright. 

What a tragedy of life and travesty of justice.

I then heard my son crying and went to check on him. He drifted back to sleep, except for grabbing my thumb which he would not let go of even while sleeping. After reading of this event, it moves me even more that my son trusts me to comfort him, even in his sleep.

But I don’t trust the world to protect him. Or my husband.

I asked hubby while eating breakfast today to be careful, for he is someone’s son. And he is someone’s father.

George Zimmerman’s father advocated on his behalf, yet I wonder if George thought of the impact of his actions on Trayvon’s mother and father who would be affected by what he was about to do to their son. About the dangerous stereotype he was about to reinvigorate and perpetuate because of his skewed vigilantism (how can you claim self defense when you pursue someone despite the police dispatcher’s admonishment to not do so?). About the permission he took that was not his to take in the taking of life.

As he walks free. While many of us hold sons, husbands, fathers, uncles, and brothers tighter in our grasp.

It’s 2012, and black men continue to be a hunted endangered species.

I think I will be writing a different piece about what it is like to be a mother . . .

For the weeks and months to come, many will write about the tragedy of the murder of Trayvon Martin, and the travesty of justice they foresee as imminent.  The contemplations, discussions, and emotions will be broadened to encompass indignation toward Geraldo’s flippant “hoodie” defense (what happens when you dress a certain way), the desired resignation of the neophyte Sanford Chief of Police and examination of his department’s shoddy execution of investigation and due diligence, and musings over how long the slaying of a yet another Black youth will dwell in the nation’s conscious after mainstream media no longer broadcasts it.  Yet what’s begun to stir within me is an investigation of me, of the inner workings of the new intimate space within me called parent, of what I am responsible for doing in rearing my newborn son to endure (and survive) a current and post-Trayvon Martin era.

The excerpt above was the first of two Facebook posts I wrote emotively on March 19th after hearing about this young son’s death.  The holding of my own son, who arrived just a few short months ago, has suddenly become more intense, an honest reaction to a hellish circumstance.  But while my arms can for now shield his growing body, the eventuality is that he will outgrow them.  Although he will practice his first steps within the preparation, guidance, and sanctuary of my arms, the eventuality is that he will walk away from me into and within the world outside them.  If I have done my job well, he will be learned and equipped in how to stand on his own.  On his physical legs, yes. Yet I contemplate how best to support his standing with strategies for straddling his inherited duality; although he is spiritually and ancestrally a temple, he is a target socially, culturally, and historically.

The scrimmage fought between being a man-child of great potential and the caricature misinterpreted as being executable is a stark reality. It is alarming that prisons are built at a rate proportionate to students’ performance on elementary literacy tests, the notorious cradle-to-prison pipeline.  And many of us are now resorting (rightfully) to practicing with our sons how to interact with law enforcement (how to speak, how to posture, how not to exude being a “threat” or “menace”).  The gravity of protecting and harvesting a son (both my own and our collective) weighs on me.  I vacillate between which should “weigh” more—helping him to harness his holiness and hopes, or conduct regular drills with him on how to interface with the outer emboldened and armed law enforcement representatives and fanatics.  For this brief moment, I feel parenting duties prioritized to preserving his physical life, and once out of my arms’ reach how to effectively (ideally) do so on his own.  As my role as a parent daily unfolds, so does my quandary and question over what takes precedence in what to teach and educate.

Without Sanctuary, Lynching Photography in America, chronicles the epidemic lynching of yesteryear and its commercialization through postcards (yes, people could send well wishes to family on one side with the image of an incinerated and castrated body on the other).  Lynching, this cultural attitude legitimizing the denigration and objectification of black males and the abhorrent act manifesting from it, seems to be rearing its ugly head, with strange fruit again populating our nation’s fatigued trees (Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham, and those  whose lives ended suspiciously as chronicled by filmmaker Keith Beauchamp in “The Injustice Files: At the End of a Rope” to name a few, regrettably).   Trayvon’s death eerily echoes and harkens back to this era, as Zimmerman’s 911 calls serve as the prelude to the semi-automated lynching he was about to conduct.  Or has the era ever left us?

This is my initial reaction as a parent.  To save my offspring  from harm.  To guard what is of my flesh, my incubation.  To prepare him for a hostile world.  We know the risks of bringing forth a man-child in this land of promise (though not always of promises kept).  He is a native son, born into the milieu of fear, flight, and fate that is disproportionately slated for our young men.  He will have to make strategic decisions in his navigations and negotiations as an invisible man in these states.  Therefore, I wonder how much I must teach my son how much his body is and is not his.  What places he can and cannot be (and at what times).  What he can and cannot wear.  How he can and cannot speak.  I feel the pressure of teaching him that daily he will have to walk and breathe in duality.  To know it is his right to live by his own construction, but that such living will intersect and conflict with, as well as disrupt, others’ construction of him (and how people may consequently act on those constructions regardless of his innocence or best intentions).

Though Trayvon’s parents did not will his son to be a sacrificial lamb or martyr (nor would any parent of their lamb), they took the risk to release their son into the world; an innocent who went into the world alone was returned to them in a body bag.  However, his life and death harnessed and galvanized an insurrection and reflection bigger than himself.

But I/we as parents must be and remain brave and bold.

My infant son’s favorite position is being perched on my shoulders.  There, he steadies himself, hands and forearms braced against my shoulders.  His routine is first to peer over my shoulders, then emboldened, begins his ritual of incessantly searching out the world around him. Rapidly rotating from side to side, his eyes and head venture then fixate.  Venture, and then fixate.  Quickly that shoulder’s geography becomes a bore, and like a rock climber ambitiously leaping to a new rock, so does he.   I catch and cradle his search, support his navigation, lest he lose balance and fall from pursuing and practicing his ambition.

But this is the point.  Instinctively, he trusts (and ideally all children trust in their guardians) I will support his ambitions and protect him in his pursuit of them.  Though in these recent weeks I feel intimidated by the possible taking of my son’s life by others armed myopia, faith reminds me that the most selfish thing I can now do is cage my son.  It is important to teach him what Jesse Washington dubs “the Black Code” of conduct (1) when having to deal with law enforcement representatives and in situations that challenge his life, but he was not born or purposed solely to fulfill his or anyone else’s fear.  I would be less than a parent to teach him to cage himself because of the cowardice and inner conflict harbored and festering in others.  He trusts me that while in my arms and upon my shoulders I will bolster his investigations of the world, and support him venturing into it.

The second post I wrote on March 19th is my ideal, my illustration, of how I am trying to raise my son.

After playing on our alphabet playmat, my son in exhaustion drifts to sleep. Resting his head on my thigh, he found his comfortable spot and relaxed. Both of us breathing heavy. Him as he descends into deep sleep. Me as I descend in thinking about Trayvon Martin. 

Will he grow from “native son” to “invisible man” (pun intended on Wright’s and Ellison’s seminal works)? Are sons and statistics interchangeable? Synonymous?

I am thinking on the world in which my son is born into, and what we will need to do to steel, strengthen, prepare and guard him. And also what we will need to instill in his imagination as chords for an (ideally) melodic world he will have to create.

And I wonder what fellow parents raising sons are wondering too . . .


(1) http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gNZGRWMd7msShtng3-UP3YcivEuw?docId=cf76e46b87df4e90bbf77cbbbabce150

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8 thoughts on “From Native Son to Invisible Man: Reflections on Trayvon Martin and Rearing a Black Man-Child in America

  1. This was a very powerful piece, considering this topic has been weighing heavily on my heart for weeks. It is frightening to realize that America is moving backward to an era of blatant disregard for tolerance instead of forward into the realm of acceptance of difference.

  2. There is nothing racist or prejudiced about you in this blog. I have had similar feelings from the time my son was born and even now that he is about to turn 21. I dreaded having a male child for the same reasons why Trayvon’s mother now cries. I have two older brothers and have watched them go through the same types of changes. Fortunately, they did not lose their lives but they did lose the battle. Remember you are not raising your son alone and your husband will be an invaluable resource to helping your son find the path towards manhood along with all the lessons that are to be learned along the way.

    I could sense all the anxiety of how things will turn out for him and whether or not he’ll be safe and I’m here to tell you that fear will not go away. There is always a knowing that his freedom to be exactly who he is and experiment along the way does come with the acknowledgement that someone will misinterpret him for something else. That’s what happens when a piece of us grows up and develops a personality of its own. Your fears are real and you will not be able to control the outcome. What you can do is teach your son and impart all of the wisdom and love you can on him. When he is of age, you can have teachable moments with him and find ways to help him cope with the reality that he will eventually be profiled by someone. If there were such a thing as a magic wand that could wipe away all of the anger that all the young black males carry for having been profiled and treated with such unfairness I would wave it….but I can’t.

    I’m just saying that your poignant post reflects feelings of my own and I know that we can’t change how the world sees us let alone our children. Most of all, don’t allow this reality to cause you to make decisions based on fear because it will rob you of all the joy your child was meant to bring to you. This is a good place for faith to come in. You’ll need it every time he walks out of your door because otherwise, your protective thoughts just might drive you insane. I remember the anger in my son’s sixth-grade eyes when he came home and told me he was called a nigger by a fellow classmate. It horrified me but the best I could do was to instill a sense that he has a rightful place in this world too. Of course the school officials didn’t handle it properly at all but I was more concerned about how my son internalized that experience…so I dealt with that.

    My son wears a hoodie all the time. He has tattoos and wears his pants sagging. He’s extremely bright though and I’ve taught him how to handle himself well and how to speak well. That helps. Even at age 20…I worry when he’s gone for a few days and no one hears from him. I don’t think that cycle ever stops and I can’t quite fault him because he doesn’t know what it’s like to live as a parent who has the fear of losing a child. He’ll understand one day though. I can’t force him to call me but all text messages are welcomed. You will do fine and I’m sure your baby boy will grow up to be something great.

  3. TMY, thank you for raising a very real fear of parents of Black and Brown boys. We live in a country where it has been permissible and tolerable to use violence as a means to protect person and property from the attack of Black men. As the father as a young Black 8-year-old boy, I am clear that he is in danger because law enforcement has historically sanctioned the use of brute force to police, subdue and punish young men that look like him. I am clear that the image of young black men as violent, criminal, suspicious, dangerous, and uneducated make them more prey to violence from members both inside and outside of their own communities. None of us is immuned to the social messages that communicate that black men carry a much lower threshold of reasonable cause when harm, suspicion and violence are inflicted upon them. So Jonolan, it is no surprise that there is wanton disregard for the value of life of young black men, even in their own communities.

    That being said, I have to be sure that my young son is aware of that truth. I must also be sure that he is aware that “that inconvenient truth” was constructed for him and me and his grandfather and great grandfather long be for we came on this Earth. So he must not own it but merely be aware of the notions, beliefs and actions that people have when he shows up Black and male. He must be clear that there are those who are equally intimidated by Brooks Brother suits as they are hooded sweat shirts and feel that same fear, intimidation, and need to create their own safety in our presence. This is even more true for those of us who work in the executive suite as those who work in the mailroom.

    They other thing that is important for me to do is to teach my son the value of being able to openly discuss the origins of how we have been constructed. He must be able to talk to his friends who are not young men of color and to his college professors and to his boss about how he experiences the world differently as a young man in brown skin. It is only through raising awareness about how and why encountering brown skin, hooded sweatshirt, and baggy jeans means you get the opportunity to shoot now and ask questions later that we will bring about change.

    So in protecting my son, I will have the courage to talk about this with my peers, my colleagues, my boss, my political representatives and create a space where we don’t have to hide behind the taboo of race discussions. Silence on this issue equals death and in most cases it equals death of young men of color who never had a chance to understand how much they were living a dangerous world that they did actually have the ability to change. So I appreciate the dialogue that has now started between the three us and I welcome continued dialogue. It is through discourse that we will create new thinking, new behaviors and new possibilities for the young people in our nation and end the senseless slaughter of young men with promise for the future.

  4. Put your racism aside if you want to protect your child. He stands almost no chance of being killed by a White but stands a real chance of being killed by another Black since the number one cause of death of Black males age 14 -24 is homicide by another Black male.

    • Hello, Jonolan. Thanks for reading my post. I am unclear about your definition of racism. Racism means having power to institutionalize prohibiting access and opportunity for others based on race/ethnicity, which was not all all the point,intent, or focus of my post. The point of the post was sharing aloud my reality, that as a parent I am faced with raising a son who will have to exist in multiple worlds and dynamics, and disclose what it currently feels like to know this and do this work with him. This reality is not isolated to just me, as recent news articles, broadcasts, and postings by other parents reveals. To your point, one of such challenges is supporting him in understanding the possibility his life being threatened (by myriad factors).

      • On the matter of racism, there is no point in our engaging in further conversation. You bought into the false and self-serving “power+prejudice” (mis)definition whereas I didn’t.

        I brought it up solely because your “reality” seemed focused on the supposed threats Whites posed for your child when the greatest threats to your son’s life are from your fellow Blacks – just as the statistics show that the greatest threats to my children’s lives would be from fellow Whites, though that would be a far less likely threat in my children’s case.

        Teaching your children accurate threat assessment is part of protecting them and letting them grow to protect themselves. Teaching them inaccurate threat assessment is a good way of losing them, which is something I’d wish on only a very few.

      • Jonolan, I am really unclear about why you are bringing such tone, hostility and particularized set of accusations to this specific post. There seems to be a whole other underlying intention, agenda, goal and platform you are promoting that has nothing to do with what I shared, and seemingly preceded this day’s post. To your point, Black-on-Black crime exists. News broadcasts and dramas like “The Wire” constantly portray such phenomena on our retinas and hearts. And both historically and worldwide, racial/ethnic groups are and have been in conflict with one another (Argentine against Argentine during the dirty war, Syrian against Syrian, Somalian rebel against Somalian refuge, IRA against Britain, etc.). If Black-on-Black crime is something you want to elaborate upon and urgently discuss, there are a plethora of forums and blogs that are hosting that discussion, that want to explore and compare Black-on-Black crime with what occurs within and across ethnic groups locally and abroad.

        My point in writing THIS post was about the underlying issues, dilemmas and heartaches of parenthood, particularly raising a child to have dual consciousness given Trayvon’s death, an important reality that gets less media coverage. Regrettably, an exchange of ideas and dialogue between us about similarities and differences in parenting issues and realities could have been potentially fruitful. Given your two posts, that is clearly what you do not want from me or this forum.

        You have vivified and made a clear case of the importance of threat assessment.

      • Actually, you deserve my apologies and I offer them to you. I stand by my statements – and they’ve largely been born out by other comments here – but I could have, and should have, worded them more sensitively and with less overt hostility.

        I’m afraid that I let you bear some of the brunt of the anger I feel towards the various “Blacktivists,” grievance-mongers, and politicians such as Obama who’ve been profiteering off this tragedy, largely because it’s an election year with a Black incumbent.

        It’s a little close to home for me. My son would be of mixed-race so I tend to react strongly when people use such deaths for their own purposes.

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