MIAMI — The young woman walking across the stage in cap and gown in front of hundreds of celebrants has a familiar face. Even outside of this high school auditorium, she is recognized. On city streets here, strangers walk up to her and say, awkwardly, “Oh my God, you’re the girl from the Trayvon Martin case.”
Nothing angers Rachel Jeantel more. Martin was not the one on trial.
“Trayvon is the victim!” she often snaps back. “He did nothing.”
A year after Jeantel became a central figure in the trial of George Zimmerman, who had killed her 17-year-old friend, there remains within her a flash of the fire she showed on the witness stand — that sass and bravado, defiant body language layered over deep hurt. Heavy sighs and folded arms.
“Why he need to lie about that, sir?” she challenged a defense lawyer at one point during her testimony.
“You listening?” she said at another.
The nationally televised trial projected her full-figured image, her words, her urban African American dialect into the national consciousness. Jeantel, the last person to speak to Martin before he was killed, unwittingly became a proxy for pitched cultural debate, a stand-in for projections about race, class and especially all the things Americans — black and white — want, don’t want and can’t tolerate seeing in young black women.
“I had to laugh it off,” Jeantel, 20, later says of the ubiquitous television, social-media and water-cooler commentary last August that derided her weight, her manner of speaking and her style of dress.
“No. Be honest,” the middle-aged woman sitting next to Jeantel interrupts, sternly.
It’s a Friday afternoon and they are sitting in an Italian restaurant celebrating Jeantel’s high school graduation and reflecting on this past year of the young woman’s life. The woman is Rose Reeder, who has become part of Jeantel’s “village,” an extended network of mentors, tutors and advisers — black professionals all.
Jeantel tries again. “I was mad because they judged me,” she concedes. “You don’t know me.”
This is what her life has been like for the past year. Directed, interrupted, lectured and groomed. Put another way — they have been all up in her business.
Members of that extended network have come together to celebrate Jeantel’s graduation from the Academy for Community Education, an alternative high school here. Every student had a story, and as she crossed the stage, Jeantel got no more applause than the other 31. Still, it was also a much bigger moment. The village commended Jeantel and each other for their accomplishment and hard work. This, despite the fact that their expectations and Jeantel’s had often differed wildly — and still do.
Big historic ideas undergird Jeantel’s village and the ways black people have rallied around her. There’s the W.E.B. DuBois idea that the talented 10 percent of blacks should “guide the mass.” There’s the Booker T. Washington notion of black uplift and providing opportunities for black folks to do for themselves. There’s the fictive kinship from slavery that borrows from the Bible to say “I am my brother’s keeper,” a phrase that President Obama’s new initiative to help young men of color draws from.
In Jeantel’s circle, Roderick Vereen is the one they call the village elder. He’s a lawyer who takes high-profile cases involving the black and Haitian American communities.
Friends of Vereen’s who knew Jeantel was being interviewed by prosecutors in Zimmerman’s trial contacted him last June, saying: “There’s a girl who is going to testify. She has no idea what she is in for.” One of those friends passed Jeantel’s cell number to Vereen.
Vereen and Jeantel met for the first time in Sanford, Fla., the night before she was to testify. He represented her pro bono and listened in court as she said the words “creepy-ass cracker,” referring to an exchange she had with Martin as he described Zimmerman. Zimmerman’s attorney later aggressively asked her when she seemed confused during questioning, “Are you claiming in any way that you don’t understand English?”
She felt attacked, and it showed. “Yes, sir,” she would answer sarcastically. At one point she threatened that she wasn’t coming back for further testimony.
The next day, Vereen drove Jeantel to DSW to buy a low-heeled shoe. He told her to be more polite and not to elaborate on questions that could be answered with one word.
Karen Andre, a lawyer and an old friend of Vereen’s, tuned in to the televised trial after she saw Jeantel catching hell on social media. Andre, who is the child of Haitian immigrants, immediately recognized her last name as Haitian.
When Andre saw Vereen in the courtroom, she shot him a direct message and offered herself as a mentor because, simply, it looked to her as if the young woman needed one.
In the days after Zimmerman’s acquittal, Vereen took Jeantel on a media blitz that included a trip to New York. She was interviewed on the nationally syndicated “Tom Joyner Morning Show.”
Joyner offered to pay for Jeantel’s college tuition at a historically black college of her choosing.
“I think the thing that moved me most,” Joyner says in a phone interview, “was when the attorney kept asking her questions and she kept saying, ‘You’re not listening to me.’ And it occurred to me, ‘Yeah, not only was that attorney not listening to her, but I think that none of us were listening to the Rachel Jeantels of the world.’”
Jeantel accepted Joyner’s offer, but she had missed nearly a full year of high school because of the investigation and trial, and there had already been gaps in her education. Vereen says an assessment showed Jeantel was reading and doing mathematics on a fourth-grade level. Joyner’s Dallas-based foundation, which has raised $65 million for students and historically black colleges and universities since its founding in 1998, pitched in to pay for tutors to try to catch her up.
With Joyner’s money, the village went to work. Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall says she wept when she saw Jeantel on the stand, seeing her as proof of a failing school system. A Miami-Dade School Board member, Bendross-Mindingall threw herself into the cause, too. She arranged for Jeantel to be transferred to an alternative school, with smaller classes and intense staff involvement.
Jeantel’s mother, Marie Eugene, who speaks Creole and little English, silently watched the hurricane of help come into her daughter’s life. Few of Jeantel’s mentors had ever spoken with Eugene directly. At times, Jeantel herself was hardly consulted.
With Jeantel’s new school chosen for her, Vereen and Reeder, who serves as one of his consultants, organized a schedule matrix.
“It was 5 in the morning — school bus. Get up by 4. School by 7:20. Out of school 2:20. One hour or two free. By the time I get home, tutors are already there,” Jeantel says. “Three hours of tutoring. Finish homework. Then I’m out. Then on Saturday, math tutoring. A sister need help on that.”
When she begged off the Saturday lessons because of exhaustion, the village was relentless. She was required to see a personal trainer on those days. Joyner’s foundation also paid for a psychologist, who saw Jeantel weekly at first and then once a month, ultimately diagnosing her as suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
The list of other advice, sometimes called “village teachings,” was long: Eat something green. Don’t wear stiletto heels that strap up to your knees. Think about your future. Work harder. Shut down your Facebook page. Show some gratitude.
At first, Jeantel tried to buck the control and Vereen grew frustrated with what he saw as her unwillingness to “put in the time to overcome her shortcomings.” He made it clear that if she did not get with the program, the spigot of support and occasional perks would be turned off.
A radio station gave Jeantel VIP tickets to see a Fantasia Barrino concert. A hairstylist who was a friend of Vereen’s became Jeantel’s beautician. One of her tutors, who has a friend who works for Norwegian Cruise Line, took Jeantel, who had never left the country, on a three-day trip to the Bahamas to reward her completion of a marketing project.
Joyner’s son, Tom Joyner Jr., visited and kept in regular contact with Jeantel over the phone.
“He lectured me all the time about stuff that he call ‘half-assin’,” Jeantel says, laughing now.
Vereen sees progress. Ten months ago, “her word choice was terrible. She didn’t know how to communicate or express herself clearly,” he says. “Rachel has learned to confide with adults. She has become very open now.” Still, the fretting’s not over.
When the village meets now, Jeantel has a seat at the table. Some days she wants to go to fashion school, which Joyner’s foundation will not pay for. Other days she says, with a voice of fulsome determination, “I want that college degree.” Vereen wants her to go to Florida Memorial, a small private university founded in 1879 to educate blacks in southern Florida.
Joyner won’t say how much the foundation has contributed to Jeantel’s care. “What matters is, did it work? The short answer to that is no,” Joyner says. Rachel graduated “not being motivated to get ready for the world.” Joyner wanted her college-ready — to get herself college ready. That’s what the foundation was paying for. “The educational system failed her, but here was an opportunity to do more than the system was offering her,” he says. “We took her to the water, and now the rest is up to her.” The offer remains open.
Where she ultimately decides to go, what she ultimately chooses to do may be a matter of what looks like success from her perspective.
Jeantel is wholly “an American girl,” says Brooklyn activist and writer Michaela Angela Davis, who deals with images of beauty and power. “We have this idea that we can’t perform the full range of blackness in public. We can only be on the Michelle Obama end of things,” she says, referring to the highly educated and polished first lady. There’s a middle-class black standard that’s very conservative, that runs parallel to a black aesthetic that has “always been edgy, innovative and radical in expressions of self,” she says.
During Jeantel’s testimony, some commentary was blatantly racist, but commentary from blacks was almost as harsh, says Los Angeles-based producer Daphne Valerius, who is working on the sequel to her 2007 documentary “The Souls of Black Girls,” about the effect of media images on self-esteem.
She calls some of that reaction guilt-based: “Meaning that within our communities, when there are communities that are underserved, people don’t want to talk about it,” Valerius says. Jeantel “forced us to look.”
Jeantel also forced viewers to hear African American English, notes Kumea Shorter-Gooden, co-author of “Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America.”
“Linguistic bias is something we don’t talk about a lot, but we know it’s a huge issue,” she says. Not only for blacks, but also for immigrant populations that are multi-lingual but are not as fluent as native speakers.
The truth is Jeantel can be charming and self-possessed. In many ways she seems more comfortable now than she was in those courtroom appearances, and more thoughtful. “Let me think about how I want to say this,” she begins in answer to a question.
She sees in herself an overcomer, shaped by her life experience. She also feels comfortable speaking for herself. “I am a work,” she says.
As she accepted her diploma, Jeantel crossed the stage in a pair of camel- colored stiletto booties, accented in gold. Vereen and Andre scrunched their faces at the sight of the shoes.
“Hey, Mama! Pat your face,” Andre says as she hugs a lightly perspiring Jeantel after the ceremony. Andre has flown back to Florida from Washington, where she now lives.
One part of Jeantel wants to get with their program. She is going on interviews at day-care centers in search of a paying job. She says “thank you” more often.
She has also begun to shed the lingering shame she felt around Martin’s mom, Sybrina Fulton. There was a time when Jeantel would not look Fulton in the eye.
Fulton sat in the front row at Jeantel’s graduation ceremony and teared up as she accepted her diploma.
“I’m so proud of her. She didn’t give up,” Fulton says later.
“I did it,” Jeantel says, looking upward, taking hold of her diploma, talking — she would later say — to God and to Trayvon.