At first, it was his name — Trayvon — that told my subconscious that I was safe.
It’s one of those uncommon names that certain black parents bestow upon a son whom they believe is too special to be called anything as ordinary as Terrence or Tim. On a barely conscious level, I needed something to separate my three sons from the kid who’d just been slaughtered for no good reason. So part of me thought, “Hmmm, Trayvon — that’s different from my boys,” despite two of their names, Hamani and Skye, being far from commonplace.
Attributing protective powers to a name is absurd, but my subconscious desperately needed to put some distance between me and the unarmed, black 17-year-old who’d been blown away by a neighborhood watch captain. For hours, I avoided learning more about Trayvon Martin, until so many outraged e-mails, Facebook posts and tweets lit up my computer that I knew I needed something else to maintain my distance. So I imagined Trayvon’s face — conjured it as a hard, scowling mask like those worn by countless black (and white and brown) youths bent on looking tough.
A face, I told myself, unlike my sons’.
It took two days, but on Wednesday, I saw what I was doing. Suppressing my fears, I Googled Trayvon’s photo and gasped at the sight of his boyish grin. Then I absorbed heart-rending footage of his parents’ grief and listened to the 911 recording of the man who pulled the trigger self-righteously describing the boy as a “real suspicious guy . . . up to no good” for walking in the rain yards from his family’s back door. Finally, I read my words in a column published 18 years ago after Hamani’s 12th birthday. Now that he was a black youth, I’d written, my adorable child could be seen as threatening — so I needed to instigate “the talk”: to warn him never to sass or make sudden moves around cops. Never to flash unnecessary “attitude.” Never to cause anyone to assume about him what George Zimmerman apparently decided about Trayvon: that his humanity, unlike white boys’, couldn’t be taken for granted. That he didn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. That he wasn’t completely irreplaceable.
My pitiful attempts at dissociation from Trayvon evaporated. I discovered I was crying — and that I couldn’t stop.
I cried for Trayvon, his parents, the girlfriend he chatted with on his cellphone moments before he was shot. I wept for millions of black parents for whom his slaying was an excruciating reminder of their children’s vulnerability. I sobbed out of shame for having tried to separate myself from Trayvon because I couldn’t bear to consider his tragedy touching my sons. I cried for my brother Darrell, shot to death decades ago in my home town of Gary, Ind., by two police officers who claimed he’d attacked them, unprovoked, with a length of pipe, a chain and a baseball bat. My peace-loving brother, 26, had no drugs or liquor in his system. For three decades, I’ve wondered: Did the officers feel any connection to the man they killed? Had they an inkling of his humanity, that they’d wounded my family forever?
I cried because although Darrell’s death had made me hypersensitive to all who’d diminish others’ humanity, my desperation to avoid considering my sons’ endangerment made me look away from Trayvon’s.
I realized something: Although my brother’s death explains my barely conscious attempt to insert some space between Trayvon and me, the effort was still insidious. It whispered that certain boys are more deserving of such a fate, and that if the Trayvons of the world had different names, faces or Zip codes, their safety, their innocence, would seem more assured.
Of course, the gap I tried to create was nothing compared with the miles that Zimmerman perceived between himself and the victim. Daily, we watch enormous disconnects acted out between nations, cultures, ethnicities and true believers at opposite ends of the political spectrum. The separateness they demonstrate doesn’t just seem inevitable. It seems like “no big deal.”
Except that it is a big deal.
Who’s easier to feel separate from than Zimmerman? Only a monster could perceive an open-faced kid as a threat so profound — one of the “a-holes who always get away,” as Zimmerman told a 911 dispatcher — he had to destroy him. Despising a monster is easy.
What’s hard is seeing the subtle ways we might be like him.
As a slain brother’s sister, I am thrilled about hoodie-wearing protesters recognizing Trayvon’s humanity and support the thousands who demand that Zimmerman not get away with killing him. Yet our outrage can blind us to our own cherished distances, to the whispers that would have us accept separations we perceive between ourselves and others.
Trayvon — God bless him and his unusual name — made me see: Distancing myself is a coping mechanism I employed long ago after an unimaginable loss. It’s time I rejected it. Ours is a world in which the unthinkable can happen — beloved brothers snatched away, and Skittles-craving boys snuffed out by would-be Dirty Harrys. Telling ourselves we’re safe or needn’t care because our circumstances, addresses, religions, skin colors or economic statuses differ from others’ isn’t just insidious.
It’s a lie by whatever name we call it.
Britt, a former Washington Post columnist, is the author of the recently published “Brothers (and Me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving.”
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