Remember when I said that I was lucky to be the mother of a son? Seeing the anguished parents of Trayvon Martin demand justice or merely answers in the shooting death of their 17-year-old son made me think of that saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” and realize that the consequences of raising a black son are far worse than comforting a daughter slammed with rude insults by a talk-show host.
I did my duty when he was young. My husband and I decided to lay down the rules of behavior we thought would keep him safe. It’s a delicate balance, to be sure. You want a son’s childhood years to be carefree, but you also know there comes a time when the kid everyone thought was too cute grows into a young man whose presence makes strangers clutch purses closer and wait – “thanks but no thanks” – for the next elevator.
He trod lightly and nimbly, with only a certain measure of the deference and paranoia I felt was a small price to pay for survival. In his teen years, he earned his way to accomplishments that have made me proud and relieved. But deep down I know that a pocketful of honors and diplomas from the best schools won’t protect him from suspicions, any more than a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea protected Trayvon Martin from the neighborhood watchman who shot him dead.
Jonathan Capehart wrote of the rules his own mother taught him, ones that sounded so familiar to me, among them “don’t run in public” and “don’t talk back to the police.” (That last one I had to remember myself a couple of times.) Yet in a time when the country has an African American president, just when you think things have gotten so much better, he writes, “comes along a Trayvon Martin to remind us that the burden of suspicion is still ours to bear. And the cost for taking our lives might be none.”
Can you imagine the scenario if the races had been reversed, and a beefy, armed black civilian patrolling his neighborhood had fatally shot a slim, white teenager whose hoodie filled him with dread?
Harkening back to the bad old days of conflicts over civil rights, when federal officials stepped in where local authorities would not, the Justice Department is heading to Florida to conduct its own investigation. Officials won’t be able to turn back time to prevent the tragedy. Since George Zimmerman is protected by the shield of the state’s “stand your ground” law, who knows if they can even take his gun away?
Hoping for justice, I’ll leave the next steps to professionals who might actually enforce the law, while my thoughts go to Trayvon Martin’s family: to the father within walking distance of the son carted off as a John Doe because the police could not believe he belonged on the gated community’s streets and never bothered to ask; to the girlfriend, who said she heard the young man last’s worried words about being followed and has to live with that; and to his mother, whose life will never be the same.
I had no right to be complacent, of course. Not long ago, when my son – home for the holidays – took a late-night break from studying with a drive through our nice neighborhood, he returned sad, angry and shaken. Within a few blocks, he had been pulled over by a policeman wanting to test his sobriety and search his car.
Thank goodness he knows the rules. But it’s to this country’s shame that he still has to.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR, Creative Loafing and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at the New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3