“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others . . . One ever feels this two-ness — two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
Dr. William Edward Burghardt DuBois
“Souls of Black Folk,” 1903
Over 40 years ago, commenting on issues of law enforcement and justice for fellow back Americans, comedian Richard Pryor quipped: “If you’re looking for justice, that’s what you’ll find — just us.” With his usual biting humor, Pryor was making people laugh, but he wasn’t joking.
In his classic little book, “Souls of Black Folk,” DuBois was expressing the same idea in a scholarly way, and across a broad range of social, economic and political issues. In spite of the 70 years that separated the two statements, however, their meanings are quite similar, perhaps due to the documented lynchings of more than 5,000 black men during the same period.
With these thoughts in mind, I have been watching some of the painful proceedings of George Zimmerman’s 2nd-degree murder case. Without regard to the eventual verdict, the pain is in the fact that his victim, Trayvon Martin, is dead and that death, as we all know, takes away from us all we have, ever had, and all we ever hoped to have.
The trial is painful, too, because it brings to mind another black boy who was killed, lynched really, about 60 years ago. His name was Emmett Till. Till was a 14-year old boy from Chicago who went to Money, Miss., to visit with family there and made the mistake of whistling at a white woman.
A day or so later, the woman’s husband and another relative came to his relative’s house in the middle of the night, dragged him from his bed, degraded his body, shot him, and threw him in the river with a heavy weight strapped to his body with barbed wire. The brutal nature of his death is credited to have been one of the sparks that lit the fires of the 1960s’ civil rights movement.
Let me add that the perpetrators of the crimes of the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till were set free, even though they later confessed in a Look magazine feature on their story of what happened. In spite of this, and the fact that there is no statute of limitations on murder, they never spent a day in jail for the crimes.
At this point, I have no idea what the jury will decide in the Zimmerman-Martin case. In a larger context, though, I simply observe that too many young black boys are dying of violence of one sort or another, and far too many black boys and men are being imprisoned for what, for others, are treated as misdemeanors or no crime at all.
In many ways, the killing of Trayvon Martin, the subsequent lenient treatment of the perpetrator and his trial dredge up all these old issues and more. For one thing, through social media, Zimmerman has raised (depending on what reports you believe) somewhere between $300,000 and $500,000 for his defense, most of it in small donations of $10 to $20.
For another, the defense has gone out of its way to vilify (criminalize) Martin, his mother, his father, his girlfriend, and otherwise discredit all whose testimony might result in a “guilty” verdict. The prosecution, on the other hand, has appeared largely inept in my view. In addition, news media seem to be being dragged along with whatever unexamined “breaking news” may come out of the trial process.
It is painful to watch. A black teenager is dead, apparently for WWB (Walking While Black). The case turns on a wacky “Stand-Your-Ground” law (there are similar laws either pending or already on the books in 29 states) that says, in effect, you can use lethal force if you think someone poses a threat to your safety on the streets or wherever you may be. The problem is that “Stand-Your-Ground” killings usually leave no witnesses. It’s legalized vigilantism.
I seriously doubt that a “guilty” or “not guilty” verdict in the Trayvon Martin case will result in the kind of urban unrest unleashed after the slaying of Dr. King or Rodney King. Most likely, whatever the verdict, we will go on with the same double-consciousness that DuBois discussed over a hundred years ago, and the same conflict it inflames.
Have a nice day.
Anderson resident Primus Mootry is a retired school teacher. His column appears Wednesdays in The Herald Bulletin.