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Dear Trayvon: A Letter to America

Activist and author Kevin Powell writes a powerful, heartfelt dedication to a boy slain merely for being Black in America

Dear Trayvon:

I have started this letter to you in my head several times. I’ve also deleted it several times. It is because I am so very hurt and saddened by the verdict, and very hurt and saddened by what happened to your life. I just do not know if any words could ever capture what I am feeling in my heart, in my soul.

Although I was hoping for some form of justice, I expected the verdict, Trayvon, I am sorry to say. The night before the jury came back I went to see the film Fruitvale Station, the true-life story of Oscar Grant. Oscar was an early 20something Black man who was killed by a local transit police officer in the Bay Area while lying on his stomach with his hands cuffed behind his back. Oscar was a young Black male like you, a father of a beautiful little girl that he adored, and a person who was as complex and multi-dimensional as you, Trayvon, as any other human being. Police would later say it was a mistake. That Oscar should have been tasered, not shot with a gun. Trayvon, from the moment Fruitvale Station began my body was in barbed-wire knots. The tension that ripped through my flesh was so unbearable as I watched the last day of Oscar Grant’s life unfold. I cried, we cried, many of us in that movie theater, particularly a Black woman sitting directly behind me. Crying, indeed, as Oscar said to the officer, before he was murdered, “I have a little girl. I have a little girl.” Crying because many of us feel that our lives, the lives of Black males in America, are essentially worthless. We were crying for Oscar, Trayvon, but also for you, for Sean Bell, for Amadou Diallo, and for so many Black and Latino males who’ve been the victims of police brutality, of racial profiling, of stop-and-frisk, of racial murders and lynchings that their names, like 14-year-old Emmett Till’s in 1955, have become etched in the blood-soaked soil that is as much a part of our American history as anything else.

Etched, too, Trayvon, because the racism that has afflicted our journey here in America has been swallowed by us Black folks again and again, and this is why we see Black males murdering Black males in places like Chicago, like my adopted hometown of Brooklyn, New York. We live lives of double jeopardy, wondering if we will one day die at the hands of a hateful White man or police officer, or at the self-hating hands of each other. That self-hating, Trayvon, is so engrained in our beings that we now embrace the word “nigga,” out of ignorance of history, out of ignorance of who we are, thinking we are somehow empowering ourselves when we are actually further killing ourselves. I am not a nigga, Trayvon, and neither were you.

So it was in the darkness of Fruitvale Station, as Oscar fought the demons of his own life, of his community, of our America, Trayvon, that I knew “not guilty” would come back for George Zimmerman. I knew in the aftermath of the trial some would say, again, yours was not a case of racism when it very clearly was. It was also racism, Trayvon, that murdered your character and your memory a second time as the defense, certain media outlets and certain individuals on social networks reconfigured you from the 17-year-old Black boy that you were into a thug, a criminal, a monster. That, Trayvon, is the insanity of racism. Not only does it stereotype individuals and groups of people, as it assaults an individual or groups of people from various angles, it also does everything in its power to further destroy you, alas, when you are dead and gone.

They say that you attacked George Zimmerman although we have the police tape of him being told not to follow you. They say that you called George Zimmerman “a cracker,” without further explaining the racial history that Black people have had to endure since we were kidnapped from Africa and brought to America as slaves. Ours has been a long and difficult journey in this nation that we literally helped to build with our free labor. You add to that, Trayvon, another 100 years, until the Civil Rights Movement, of legalized oppression and discrimination known as segregation or Jim Crow, and it is little wonder that you, Trayvon, or my South Carolina-born mother, use the word “cracker” to describe certain kinds of “White” people we believe mean us harm. That does not mean we hate White people. It does not mean we hate anyone. Our words, our Black words, just like our Black music from the spirituals to the blues to jazz to soul to hip-hop, have been our way to explain what we see, what we feel, without rioting, without attacking, without, honestly Trayvon, going completely insane from what we’ve endured generation to generation. That does not mean calling anyone or any people a name is right. It is not. But to erase the context of why you uttered what you said, Trayvon, is to erase the entire history of a people in America.

It is also a lie to say that Black people like to scream racism at every turn. We do not, Trayvon, we do not. It is a lie that Black people do not work hard, do not have families and that we do not have dreams like any other group in America. And it is a lie to suggest that the only way Black people can handle a verdict like the Zimmerman verdict is to resort to violence.

I also am not with people in our nation suggesting, directly or indirectly, that Black people should simply get over the past, act like it never happened. If we did that, if any people did that, Trayvon, be they us, or Latinos, or Asians, or Native Americans, or women, or the gay community, or our Jewish sisters and brothers, we would be denying ourselves, our own realities, and our own humanity. Every story is important, every story should be told, each one of us should be treated and respected and honored as equal human beings. But that is the opposite of what the Zimmerman jury did with the “not guilty” verdict, Trayvon. That verdict says you had no real rights as a citizen, as a human being.

But I have news for George Zimmerman...

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