Fifty years ago, a Baptist preacher mounted a stage on the Mall to offer a thrillingly operatic description of his American dream. Today, many who’ve called a Florida 17-year-old’s shooting death an “epic tragedy,” and those who recently stormed the airwaves to decry a white Australian baseball player’s killing are wondering what these deaths say about that dream’s fulfillment.
Trayvon Martin and Christopher Lane were unremarkable young men whose cruel slayings thrust them upon the national stage. It’s appropriate to spotlight their tragically shortened lives — yet I keep thinking about Daniel.
A real, live black Florida 18-year-old whom I recently met, Daniel is every bit as unknown as Trayvon and Lane were before their deaths. What do his humanity, his aliveness — and that of countless other anonymous youths — tell us about why the killings of the other young men became theater?
Vacationing in Orlando, two weeks after George Zimmerman’s “not guilty” verdict at a Sanford, Fla., courthouse, I wandered into a sports outlet to buy sneakers. Within minutes I was greeted by a hoodie-sporting young salesman whose smile and greeting were so warm, I blurted, “Are you on commission?” Daniel’s reply: “My commission will be your smile when you find your shoes.”
The smile, the hoodie, the store’s location a half-hour from Sanford — how could I not think of Trayvon? The more Daniel and I chatted, the more his sweetness stirred my simmering frustration with the verdict, and with the endless back-and-forth tweets, blogs and commentary it inspired. Some seemed theatrical, as one “expert” voice overpowered the next, and jostling players vied for the stage.
You almost could have forgotten a boy was dead. His parents would never again warm to his smile, groan at his jokes or marvel at how he was evolving, as I do with my grown sons, whose maturation I couldn’t have predicted during their knuckleheaded youths.
We saw something similar with Lane. Some who seized upon initial reports that he had been beset upon and killed by three black teens called him “a white Trayvon Martin.” One of his assailants turned out to be white, and the suspects — unlike in Trayvon’s case — were quickly arrested. Do those facts diminish the horrific squandering of his life?
Their circumstances were different, but both Trayvon and Lane deserved better. They weren’t characters in a play complete with virtuous heroes, hissable villains and a bellowing social media Greek chorus. They were real. Why did that fact get lost for some people?
Anyone who has attended the theater may understand. What’s onstage is fake, yet we willingly give ourselves over to it. Sighing at romantic speeches, shrieking at carefully timed frights, we let acting, costumes and speeches open us, until the false feels real to us.
In life, the opposite happens: Instinctively, often without realizing it, we transform the genuine into theater when confronted by those whose looks, behavior or situations differ from ours — or can be used to make a point. Too often, we shut these people out, denying them our empathy by making them less real than we are. Or we make a point of embracing them, not because of who they are, but what they represent. Their tragedies become fiction — or merely symbolic — to us.
I was reminded of this when I read these polling numbers: Eight in 10 blacks said they thought Martin’s following and killing was not justified, compared with just 38 percent of whites. And the other 62 percent? Most whites, the poll said, reported that they did not know enough about the shooting to say whether it was justified.
Nobody would rationalize young men shooting Lane to ease their boredom. (I learned of his death in a furious e-mail from a black male friend, who hoped his killers would “roast in hell.”) But could some of my white fellow citizens really believe that an adult killing an unarmed 17-year-old was justified? Such a belief requires discounting the victim’s humanity. I tried to imagine legitimizing a black man — or any man — behaving as Zimmerman did, whatever the victim’s color. I couldn’t.
Even in my imagination, his victim is too real to me. He’s too much like my own beloved sons. Like Chris. Like Daniel.
An aspiring doctor who attends the University of Central Florida, Daniel seemed intrigued when I suggested interviewing him about his views on the Zimmerman verdict. Contacted later, however, he demurred, citing concerns about “privacy.” Pushed to elaborate, Daniel admitted Trayvon’s slaying was “a hurtful thing to think about because it could have been me, or someone else I knew.” Not talking about it meant “those thoughts wouldn’t enter my mind.” And his friends? “We don’t talk about it anymore.”
It hurt, hearing this magnetic youth’s efforts to neutralize his vulnerability. Unlike Trayvon, he’s alive — and scared. But I understood. For weeks, as others reviled or defended the verdict, I couldn’t write a word. It was paralyzing, realizing how differently my black and white fellow citizens perceived the death. Like many African Americans, I’d been made painfully aware as a child that I should strive to be perfect so “they” wouldn’t hate me — talk about playing a part! At some point, the unfairness hit me. White girls didn’t feel culpable for the acts of naughty strangers who resembled them. Neither did their parents.
Reducing people to characters is a universal protective device — it’s as much a part of human nature as whatever made me overlook the large number of American whites who were outraged by Trayvon’s killing. Our split-second presumptions simplify things, fixing what’s messy and complex into a neat script that makes sense to us. Remember that first, younger photo of Trayvon? Much like Chris Lane’s much-circulated baseball-hat pic, it presented an easy-to-love face, handsome and disarming. But when Trayvon-the-innocent was revealed as a marijuana user suspended from school, some folks’ empathy vanished.
In real life even more than theater, we prefer our heroes immaculate. But how many teens of any shade embody perfection? Are the sons and nephews of those who would judge youths such as Trayvon — and not the millions of white boys much like him — really so pure? The misadventures of my grown sons’ white (and black and brown) friends disabused me of any group’s sinlessness.
Some things we know in our bones. Any young person without a weapon — Lane was 22 — needlessly pursued by someone toting a gun deserves our empathy and protection. Right and wrong shouldn’t depend on the color of the cast we’re watching.
Transcending our see-them-as-actors impulse means pushing our internal “pause” button long enough to appreciate in others the humanity we want seen in ourselves. Thankfully, most split-second assumptions, while regrettable, are fixable.
Unless they’re lethal. In the moment in which Trayvon Martin was perceived as a dangerous interloper rather than a kid wandering home, and in which Chris Lane’s solitary jog was translated into an invitation to violence, pushing pause might have allowed two promising young men to remain happily anonymous, rejoining their loved ones and living their lives. Which would have made all the difference in their worlds. And ours.
Fifty years ago from a stage the whole world was watching, another young man who would be taken too soon asked America to keep faith that “unearned suffering is redemptive.” Maybe redemption starts in that pristine split second when we realize the play isn’t the thing.
Real life is.
Britt is a former Washington Post columnist and author of Brothers (and me): A Memoir of Living and Giving.