Young, black and speaking out after the Trayvon Martin case

Teen poets ache over Trayvon Martin's death

Black teens personalize Trayvon Martin's death in their poetry: "What it means to be a young black man in society...people don't value your life," says Ayinde Grimes, 17.

Written by DeNeen L. Brown

Ayinde Grimes splits the crowd on the sidewalk as he and a friend window-shop in Georgetown one afternoon. People break a wide arc around the tall teen from Anacostia, strolling on Wisconsin Avenue with his afro bouncing and his black-power medallion swinging.

Were they just giving him space? he wonders. Were they afraid? Ayinde doesn’t know. He’s walking that line that black people — especially young black men — often walk.

Maybe they did that because “I’m black,” he says later. “Maybe they did that not because I’m black but because I’m taking up space.” It’s a perpetual internal debate.

Ayinde is 17 — the same age as Travyon Martin, the black teenager who went out one night in Sanford, Fla., to buy candy and was slain by a neighborhood watch volunteer on his way home. The killing had shaken Ayinde and many of his friends. Even worse, he says, was George Zimmerman’s acquittal in July on all charges in the teen’s death, an outcome that outraged them.

In the weeks that followed the Zimmerman verdict, many people wondered what sort of impact the case would have on the lives of young African Americans like Ayinde. What would it mean for black teens navigating the journey from childhood to manhood in a world that so often defines them by stereotypes?

“I call them young black baby men,” says Gayle Danley, who taught a “Split This Rock” poetry workshop that Ayinde attended this summer. “No matter what we tell them: ‘You are beautiful. You are valuable.’ No matter what the world says, there still might be that little kernel of doubt inside, saying, ‘Really? Am I really important? Am I really valuable? Look what can happen to me on a dark, rainy night.’ ”

In Georgetown, Ayinde crosses the street and goes into the sports shoe store, where he gets sidelong glances from other customers. “It seemed like the girls were afraid to . . . walk by me,” he says. “And I’m just living my life.”

Ayinde was in the fourth grade the first time he was followed as he was shopping, at a dollar store with two friends. A clerk trailed them as they looked for Styrofoam balls for a galaxy science project.

But at the Apple Store in Georgetown, the clerks smile when they spot him and ask whether he needs any help. “They seemed genuinely friendly,” he says.

Being a target

Ayinde’s favorite T-shirt warns, “Danger: Educated Black Man.”

Ayinde, who says he is a Rastafarian, grew up in Southeast Washington, where he takes his mother to church every Sunday at St. Teresa of Avila, around the corner from the Big Chair on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. He lost his dad to complications of diabetes when he was 12. Sometimes, Ayinde says, he heads to the basement of his house to surround himself with his father’s books.

Ayinde Grimes, 17, takes the bus from his home in Anacostia to his summer internship with the Hissing Black Cat Theater Company at the D.C. Armory. Ayinde Grimes, 17, takes the bus from his home in Anacostia to his summer internship with the Hissing Black Cat Theater Company at the D.C. Armory. (Astrid Riecken/The Washington Post)

At a restaurant on Georgia Avenue NW, he orders a vegan burger named in honor of black nationalist Marcus Garvey and a side of fresh kale. Ayinde prefers vegetarian fare to fast food, favors the music of Nas, Marvin Gaye and John Coltrane to Jay Z, Lil Wayne and Cash Money.

Ayinde is a senior at St. Anselm’s Abbey School, a prestigious all-boys Catholic school in Northeast Washington, where most of his classmates are white and where he wears a button-down shirt, tie and blazer to class every day.

He’s an avid reader who loves African history and belongs to the D.C. Youth Poetry Slam Team. When he speaks, out comes a booming baritone so deep that he constantly explains: “Yes, this is my real voice.”

But he also knows that plenty of people don’t see him as a poet raised Catholic or a high school kid not yet fully grown. Being black and 17, he says, “means being a target.”

“I see how my country sees me,” Ayinde says. “I’m about 6 feet 1. I have an afro. It’s getting larger. I have a pretty deep voice. I speak my mind. When people see me, they might look twice. I wear a black-power fist and culture chain. I’m upfront about my values. And people respond to that negatively. I’ve been followed in stores — long stares with people gawking.

“It is a level of familiarity with other people’s perception of you. It’s very important to know that and know who you are and what you project yourself as. I’m comfortable with myself.”

“I love my people,” he says. “When I think about my identity as a black man, that is crucial to me. First, I am human, then I am black.”

A mother’s fears

Ayinde’s mom is washing dishes, as she ponders the question: What is it like to be a 17-year-old black boy? Ayinde is the youngest of Donna Toliver Grimes’s three children. He is her baby, and yet, she says, the world starts to label black boys early.

“They see them as men or a threat at a very early age, before they are even teenagers,” says Grimes, who is assistant director of African American affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“In about the third grade, all of a sudden they become very scary for people, and yet they are young people.”

Grimes would like people to recognize Ayinde “as a good person,” she says. “I’d like them to see his kindness, his concern for others, someone with a lot of potential, someone making a difference. . . . I’d like them not to be afraid of him, nor leery or worried, clutching purses. I’d like them to recognize him as a young man.”

It is a refrain repeated by Monique Sadler, the mother of one Ayinde’s closest friends, Eric Powell Jr. Eric is a 16-year-old junior at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, where he won an acting scholarship. Like Ayinde, Eric, an MC who goes by the name E.L.P.J., writes and performs poetry. He spends most of his free time making music, which is his passion, in the pale-yellow basement studio of his family’s home on a quiet cul-de-sac in Bowie.

Eric Powell Jr., 16, and his mother, Monique Sadler, talk about the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. Sadler says she is concerned for the safety of her son. Eric Powell Jr., 16, and his mother, Monique Sadler, talk about the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. Sadler says she is concerned for the safety of her son. (Astrid Riecken/The Washington Post)

When Eric goes into the District to perform his poetry, his mother is constantly nervous.

“I have to be careful not to hold on too tight,” says Sadler, who works in communications. “He is a lot more independent now. He is on Metro a lot. He is in the city. He is doing so many things, I can hardly keep up. I have to let him do this because he’s got to turn into a man. But my heart is in my mouth every time he leaves.”

“It is not easy being a black man in this world,” she says. “So I just pray for him until I see him again.”

‘Black is the description’

The sky is turning the purple of evening as Ayinde, Eric and another friend, Mandlenkosi “Kosi” Dunn, spill out of Busboys and Poets at Fifth and K streets NW, where they have gone to perform their poetry.

Eric’s dad picks him up. The rest gather around a sculpture outside the restaurant. Ayinde is talking with Seamus Kirkpatrick, 17, who has been Ayinde’s friend since eighth grade.“Technically, we met at the seventh-grade picnic” at St. Anselm’s Abbey School, Ayinde says. “It was the end-of-year barbecue.”

Ayinde has spent much of his life navigating between St. Anselm’s white world and Anacostia’s black world. At school, he says, he is constantly explaining black culture to other students. Sometimes he gets annoyed when his classmates act like they know more than they do.

Nearby, Kosi’s girlfriend is riding his skateboard when she loses control, and it rolls into the street. A car approaches. Kosi and Ayinde yell for the driver to stop, but the woman doesn’t hear them. In an instant, the skateboard cracks under the weight of the car’s wheel.

Kosi Dunn jokes with his girlfriend, Lauren May, 16, outside Busboys and Poets on K and Fifth streets NW, where both attended Youth Open Mic, a monthly event that features student poets, singers and musicians. Kosi teases Lauren, who accidentally let his skateboard roll onto the street. Kosi Dunn jokes with his girlfriend, Lauren May, 16, outside Busboys and Poets on K and Fifth streets NW, where both attended Youth Open Mic, a monthly event that features student poets, singers and musicians. Kosi teases Lauren, who accidentally let his skateboard roll onto the street. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Kosi, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Maryland who plans to study engineering, was riding the skateboard one Saturday morning, heading to a poetry workshop in Southeast Washington, when he was stopped by police. They said he “fit the description of a man who had just robbed a McDonald’s.”

“I walk around each day trying not to get shot, hoping each day I don’t get pulled over,” Kosi says. “And laughing at the idea that me, with a book and a skateboard, looks like I just robbed a McDonald’s up the street.”

The police questioned him and sent him on his way. But the incident stayed with him.

“I feel like ‘black’ is the description — black boy between the ages of 18 and 24, you are the description.” He laughs nervously. “I wish people would get to talk to me in real life because I am so not threatening.”

Kosi, who grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Largo, hates when people talk about how smart he seems — as though he is an exception. “Because you don’t see a white person— no offense,” he says nodding to Seamus, who’s white, “and say that looks like an intelligent-looking white guy. But they will say that is a mad intelligent black guy because he is wearing a suit, because he is saying words longer than three syllables.”

Kosi asks Seamus: “How do you feel being around black guys?”

Seamus, who is a senior at the School Without Walls in Northwest Washington and perhaps wants to go to historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta, is acutely aware of how upset his friends are about the outcome of the Zimmerman trial.

“I wouldn’t just call myself a white man right now. I’m a white dude, that’s how I would put it,” Seamus says. “I felt guilty about Trayvon Martin getting shot and the guy getting off.” He gets lumped in with Zimmerman’s defenders, just because he’s white. “It’s like dodge ball,” he explains. Instead of being selected by a “team captain, society just tells you what side you are on. Then if you try to walk across the court, you get hit with a ball.”

‘They don’t know me’

Ayinde’s godbrother, Jachuku Howard, 15, recalls a night he hung back because of his skin color. Jachuku had been invited for a sleepover at the home of a white friend who lives near Frederick.

Ayinde Grimes, left, joins Jachuku Howard for Sunday service at St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church in Southeast Washington. Ayinde takes his mother to the church every Sunday. Ayinde Grimes, left, joins Jachuku Howard for Sunday service at St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church in Southeast Washington. Ayinde takes his mother to the church every Sunday. (Astrid Riecken/The Washington Post)

Ayinde Grimes, right, joins Jachuku Howard, second from right, Jachuku’s father, Michael Howard, second from left, and Kevin Hermonstine for a prayer at St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church. Ayinde Grimes, right, joins Jachuku Howard, second from right, Jachuku’s father, Michael Howard, second from left, and Kevin Hermonstine for a prayer at St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church. (Astrid Riecken/The Washington Post)

“I stayed with him for the weekend,” says Jachuku, a junior at Bishop McNamara who lives in Lanham. “His mom lets him roam around and go wherever he wants, and I went with him.”

Jachuku joined his friend and three other white boys when they walked to another friend’s house.

“The friend wasn’t there,” recalls Jachuku, who was 14 at the time. “So they just went in [his] back yard. I was about to go with them, but then I had to stop myself and think, ‘I’m a black man in America. They don’t know me. If they see me in their back yard and they don’t know who I am and I’m just there, what is going to happen to me? Even though I’m with all these other Caucasian people.’

“There were many times when they would do things, and I’d have to stop and realize, ‘I can’t partake in this because of the color of my skin. I would put myself at risk doing the things you are doing that you can get away with because of your skin tone.’ ”

They had a certain freedom and a carefree childhood that had already eluded him.

‘America, I still love you’

Ayinde and his friends pressed through the crowd on a summer evening, passing out folded slips of paper with urgent messages written by hand.

Just six days had passed since Zimmerman’s acquittal. Their shock remained fresh.

“I was walking to the car with my [slam] teammates,” Eric recalls. “We had just finished eating. It took me a minute to realize what happened. Then I thought that could have been me or somebody I know. . . . That could have been me. That is not an exaggeration.”

Now he and Ayinde and Jachuku and Kosi were joining dozens of others for a march through the streets of Northwest Washington.

“This is Hush, a silent demonstration,” read the missives that teens had hand­written after running out of printer ink. “This goes beyond Trayvon, beyond Zimmerman and beyond the justice system. Tonight we hold ourselves accountable for our complacency in the face of the injustices happening every day. A person’s race should not be a death sentence, and we must stand our ground against laws that are not protecting all of us.”

Jachuku raised a sign written in blue crayon: “We have power.” Another teen carried a poster sarcastically declaring: “I’M DISPOSABLE.”

A protest organizer stood on tip­toes and whistled for the demonstrators to gather. “We will not stop,” she declared. “Why? Because someone got gunned down at 17 years old and nothing was done about it.”

They folded into the march as it flowed down 14th Street, cutting across Meridian Hill Park, also known as Malcolm X Park, onto 16th Street, arriving just before dark at the gates of the White House.

Eric Powell Jr., 16, of Bowie gathers with fellow protesters at the Columbia Heights Metro station before participating in a silent march to protest the verdict in the George Zimmerman case. Eric Powell Jr., 16, of Bowie gathers with fellow protesters at the Columbia Heights Metro station before participating in a silent march to protest the verdict in the George Zimmerman case. (Astrid Riecken/The Washington Post)

When the Hush demonstrators reached 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. — where a black man occupies the Oval Office for the first time in U.S. history — Ayinde locked arms with Eric, who locked arms with Jachuku.

As the protests wound down, Eric thought about how people of color have been treated historically. “Racism can’t be destroyed by trying to act colorblind,” he says. “The solution to racism is to embrace our differences.”

Outside the White House gates, he broke away to perform one of his poems in which he likened himself to “a child soldier in a war that he did not start” and detailed the ugly scars left by the country’s “abusive relationship” with its minorities. But the poem ended with a pledge of devotion:

. . . you would think,

there was no more love here and —

there shouldn’t be any more love here,

but contrary to popular belief,

America — I still love you,

America, I still love you,

America! I still love . . .”

The crowd raised candles and snapped fingers in applause. The light glowed around the White House.

Eric, Ayinde and Jachuku left to meet up with Eric’s father, Eric Powell Sr., who had followed the march in his car. Powell suggested that the teenagers wait in the lobby of a plush hotel at 16th and K streets while he shuttled two protesters back to the starting point in Columbia Heights. He’d be back quickly, he told the teens. They walked into the lobby, and Powell got into his car.

Then he paused and thought, “Let me go check on them for a moment.” He returned to the lobby just as the boys were headed for the door. They had already been asked to leave.

If you are the parent of a teenager who is black, what has been your experience raising your child in the Washington area? E-mail us at tellus@washpost.com, including your name and city, and we might share your story with others.

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