Leonid McGill, from Walter Mosley’s All I Did Was Shoot My Man
“I should be able to wear what I want!” That is what I used to mutter at my mother while I was holding the detached (and forcibly so) hood from my most recent purchase. Sometimes she would respond, but most of the time my words would bounce off her back as she walked down the hall outside my bedroom.
That is the second thing I thought of when I heard the initial account of the murder of Florida teen Trayvon Martin. And let us not mince words or shrink away from what reason provides. This child was murdered. The first thing I thought of was my son. After the initial joy I remember the dread that crept up through my belly like so many punches to the gut when the nurse performing the sonogram on my wife proclaimed “It’s a boy!” You see, my eyes were open well before the murder of Trayvon. I know there is something else at work here. The African American male is all but guaranteed a contrastive experience in these United States. One that will at some point take a hard left from the path his peers of various races are on. Not debatable. It is guaranteed.Though the range and scope of the experience may vary, ask any black man you know to tell you his “aha moment” and he will recount it as easily as you could tick off what you had for breakfast this morning. I had many.
After my mixed race elementary school turned us out into the sun one afternoon a friend decided to walk home with me. When we reached the avenue that bordered my neighborhood he stopped. With a blank yet somehow telling look on his face he sheepishly revealed, “My parents said I can’t go down there.” My first thought was “Down where?” As I watched him shuffle off the other way I almost didn’t want to go “down there” either. Hell, maybe he knew something I didn’t. Fast forward some years and Michael Griffith is streaking across the Belt Parkway in a fight for his life after being chased out of Howard Beach by a pack of cowardly teens. He lost that fight. When my mother found out I was driving my high school buddy John home to Howard Beach she forbid it. I couldn’t go down there. Tight shoes hurt no matter what foot they’re on.
But back to the matter of the hooded sweatshirt. A Champion hoodie, black to be exact, was the only sweatshirt any self respecting member of my urban peer group would be caught wearing. Allowances were made for crew neck or colored variations, but you had to have the sneakers to match. This was high level stuff, no half-stepping allowed. I worked before I had the state issued “working papers” coveted by city teens, and had several jobs in the neighborhood over time. Whether delivering the newspaper, groceries, or at my job at a local mom and pop cutlery shop, I made my own money and thought I should decide how it was spent. Enter the dragon (or dragon-lady as it were). My mother despised hooded sweatshirts of any color or style. She associated them with negativity and crime because most of the negativity and crime she saw in our neighborhood was perpetrated by a young black male in a black hooded sweatshirt. I made a special effort to hide my hoodies until I could do my own laundry. Whenever that effort failed I was greeted with the body of what once was a hooded sweatshirt (sans hood) sprawled across my bed. She took no pity. Jagged scissor marks and holes adorned the collar. All that was missing was the yellow crime scene tape. I would of course do what any rebellious man child would. On payday I would march back to the avenue my boyhood friend feared (apparently he and his parents had no idea what they were missing) and lay down another “forty dollars no tax.” Days later I would enter my room to find the mutilated corpse. Another victim of a shear wielding vandal.
This went on until I left mom and pop’s roof for a college arch. As I matured the many lessons my parents attempted to teach me would bare and I often thought about this epic battle of wills with my mother. At some point in adult life you focus on not what a person did, but why they did it. I took stock of my mother and what tempered her worldview. Born in the 1930’s South, my mother grew up in an era where at times anything outside of “yas sir” or “naw sir” could literally cost you your life. This was especially true for black men. Granted, slavery was officially over but the stain remained. When something stirs the memory my mother recounts sneaking away from the family house one morning to go into the neighboring woods with her siblings. The mission was to spy a peek at the corpse of a recently lynched black man. To be clear that’s mutilated- and- hung- from- the- neck -until -he -died man. I know what seasoned her broth, It’s just that the “Fight the Power” generation I grew up in wasn’t drinking it. I mean, after all, this is the land that promises “liberty and justice for all” right? I stood with my classmates and swore allegiance to the flag that sealed that deal every morning. Certainly I was free to wear what I wanted,no?
A demure and graceful priest once taught me that the definition of freedom is “Your right to do what you want, as long as it does not impede the rights of others.” That should certainly include my right to don a sweatshirt for a walk to the store for candy and tea, no matter the opinion of a wannabe cop or has been shock journalist. So I will reach for my hoodie and join with those that mourn the loss of Trayvon Martin. There is something to be said about solidarity. I will also note the moment but join the movement for faith without works is dead. We should never pass on an opportunity to actively speak out against the attitudes, laws, and practices that seek to justify senseless acts of ignorance and violence like the murder of an innocent, no matter their race, creed, or orientation. As a human being I pray for the peaceful repose of young Trayvon’s soul. As a father of a boy I pray a special intention for Trayvon’s father. A man’s instinct is to protect. I cannot imagine the sound of my son’s first cry in life being drowned out by a recording of his last.
I will act while waiting for the justice for all this country boasts, but I won’t wait long. Though my hood is on I can still see.