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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Trayvon Martin, Whistling Vivaldi and Whistling Dixie

I, like so many, am struggling to cope with the killing of Trayvon Martin and the trial of his killer. I am reading and reflecting on the many commentaries in an effort to make sense of it all.

One commentary that particularly struck me was by musician and author Questlove (Amir Khalib Thompson). Questlove wrote in New York Magazine about how the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer left Questlove feeling not only dismayed but devalued. For Questlove, Martin’s death was a reminder that too often, black lives seem not to count for very much. As Questlove notes, our very physical presence is sometimes a threat to good order. Questlove wrote:

I'm in scenarios all the time in which primitive, exotic-looking me — six-foot-two, 300 pounds, uncivilized Afro, for starters — finds himself in places where people who look like me aren't normally found. I mean, what can I do? I have to be somewhere on Earth, correct? In the beginning — let's say 2002, when the gates of "Hey, Ahmir, would you like to come to [swanky elitist place]?" opened — I'd say "no," mostly because it's been hammered in my DNA to not "rock the boat," which means not making "certain people" feel uncomfortable.
I mean, that is a crazy way to live. Seriously, imagine a life in which you think of other people's safety and comfort first, before your own. You're programmed and taught that from the gate. It's like the opposite of entitlement. 
The problem is, I do have desires to go to certain places and do certain things and enjoy the perks and benefits of being a person who works his arse off as much as I do. So I got over my hang-ups of not wanting to be the odd guy in the room sometime around 2007. It's been mixed results at best.

Sadly, the fear of black physical presence is not new. Questlove’s piece is reminiscent of an anecdote from the book Parallel Time:Growing Up in Black and White by Brent Staples. Staples wrote of his time moving about Chicago while a graduate student:

I tried to be innocuous but didn't know how. The more I thought about how I moved, the less my body belonged to me; I became a false character riding along inside it. I began to avoid people. I turned out of my way into side streets to spare them the sense that they were being stalked. I let them clear the lobbies of buildings before I entered, so they wouldn't feel trapped. Out of nervousness, I began to whistle and discovered I was good at it. My whistle was pure and sweet -- and also in tune. On the street at night, I whistled popular tunes from the Beatles and Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." The tension drained from people's bodies when they heard me. A few even smiled as they passed me in the dark.

Staples, like Questlove, comes from the position of being a large (over six feet tall) black man in a world that too often deems any black man, woman or even a child as a scary Negro. And if anyone doubts that black women and children fall into this category also, they haven’t lived in my shoes nor in any pair that remotely resembles my shoes.  Whether it is driving while black,  reunioning while black, or other WB (while black) incidents, too many black people face the perplexing, infuriating, heart-breaking, debilitating, dangerous, and sometimes fatal task of addressing what scholar Jody Armour labeled “negrophobia.”  Negrophobia is the notion that because of their perceived dangerousness, an otherwise irrational fear of blacks might be justified in situations where whites (or deemed whites—for as George Zimmerman reminds us, whiteness is frequently situational, contingent, delegated and/or relative) take preemptive action such as shooting to thwart a black attacker. This is the Trayvon Martin case in a nutshell.

 This scary Negro trope runs rampant through the minds, media and literature of a country that, for all of its racial progress in some areas, remains wedded to Birth of a Nation style anti-black imagery. Such imagery affronts black men in particular, rendering them as little more than exemplars of the criminalblackman—the mythic black wrongdoer posited by scholar Katheryn Russell Brown. 

 Whistling Vivaldi, negrophobia, the criminalblackman and the killing of  Trayvon Martin are all potent aspects of what social theorist Erving Goffman called discredited stigma—stigma resulting from differentness that is already known or is assumed on the spot. This difference of blackness “spoils" the identity of black people, often rendering irrelevant black people’s adherence to social norms and expectations in other aspects of their lives. If Staples whistled light-hearted pop tunes or classical music to allay the fears of mostly white passersby, he was only trying to assuage the fear of his stigma-ravaged black identity.

 All too often, however, no amount of whistling will calm the fear of blackness. Because this is true, assertions that the Trayvon Martin case was “not about race” leave us with no real way talk about what happened. A man thought someone looked “suspicious,” called police, acted against police advice and followed the allegedly suspicious person, thereby provoking a fight, and then shot and killed the unarmed person.  How does the story about initial suspiciousness or the subsequent fight make sense without viewing it from the lens of the discrediting stigma of blackness? It doesn’t—unless instead of whistling Vivaldi, you’re whistling Dixie.