Today I turn my blog over to guest writer, Marquis Alexander. My husband Troy became friends with Marquis while the two of them were in an improv troupe. They spent a year laughing and performing together. Marquis is one of the funniest people I know. He is smart, highly educated, a political activist. He is friendly, outgoing and kind. He also happens to be a black man, which has rendered him subject to experiences that many of us could never imagine. In the wake of George Zimmerman’s “not guilty” verdict, I think we all need to wake up. We need to share our stories, we need to listen more. This is Marquis’ experience of being black in America.
The Zimmerman Verdict Through the Eyes of a Black Man
By Marquis Alexander
We live in a nation that is terribly divided. A nation where some of its citizens are letting out cheers of joy because the shooter of a teenager walks free while others sheds tears of sadness because they feel that yet again our justice system has declared that while all men are created equal, all men are not regarded as such in the eyes of the law. Let me be clear, I feel no hate or ill will towards George Zimmerman. He is just another actor in this tragic play called America. I don’t think he woke up in the morning looking to kill Trayvon on that fateful day, but I feel he was certainly responsible for the unnecessary death of a young man who was just trying to go home. In theory, when the gun toting George Zimmerman chose to get out of his car and “make sure the little punk didn’t get away” instead of allowing the police to do their jobs, he then assumed responsibility for all that would follow. That’s the way it should work, in theory, anyway.
Unfortunately, the jury and a large swath of America don’t see it that way. As a black man what this judgment underscores isn’t a lack of justice for Trayvon, but a deeper, scarier truth that I am not a man, but a suspect. This verdict says that if my mere presence as a black man is enough for you to feel threatened, and if you act from that place of fear your actions will be justified under the law and you will face no consequences if you turn out to be completely wrong and I end up completely dead.
The most difficult thing with this case is trying to explain to white people what it feels like to be a suspect every moment of your life. I’m sure every black male has a story of when they were pulled over for driving while black, walking while black, or hell just breathing while black. I’ll list just a few of mine:
I was 12 the first time I was randomly stopped by police and questioned because I was walking through Broadview (a white suburb of Chicago) on my way to my aunt’s house in La Grange. After convincing them that I wasn’t up to no good, they told me to hurry it along. When I was 14, I was a freshman on the football team at Proviso East High School which happened to be all black. After getting our asses kicked by Downers Grove South, we were walking to the bus to head back home. A few Downers Grove policemen pulled up, jumped out of their squad cars, hands on guns, and asked our white coach “Are you okay? Are these guys bothering you?” Even after he had assured them that the large black men WEARING FOOTBALL UNIFORMS were his team and that he was fine, they still asked him “Are you sure?” When I was 17 (same age as Trayvon) I was pulled over while biking to my father’s house in Palos Hills. After explaining to the officers that I was coming from work (mind you I’m wearing my Burger King uniform and Burger King hat) and heading home, they commenced to tell me I was headed the wrong way and that the Trace (the subdivisions where the poor and middle class families lived) was that way. Giving him my best what the fuck are you talking about face, I told him “My father doesn’t live in the Trace.”
I could go on and on with these stories, like the time my white friends got a DWBIPS that’s driving with blacks in the passenger seat or the time I almost got shot by police for having the audacity to be standing outside of the apartment building I manage, but that would be like shooting a dead horse carrying a bag of skittles.
|Marquis addresses a large crowd at USC.
I know what some of you are thinking, “This is different, this Trayvon kid got kicked out of school for having marijuana and fighting. You went to Northwestern, there’s no way you would end up like that.” To that I say, google Robert Russ. Robert was a year ahead of me at Northwestern and was so easy going he was given the nickname “Fluff”. Now mind you he played defensive line so he was a BIG dude, a big BLACK dude. One night, just a few days before he was supposed to walk across the stage and get his diploma from a top 15 university, Fluff was shot and killed by police. The officer claimed self-defense, saying Fluff reached for the officer’s gun and was cleared by the department. REALLY?!? An honors student AT NORTHWESTERN reached for an officer’s gun. REALLY? Luckily for Fluff’s family, the jury in the civil trial saw through that horse shit and gave them a sizable judgment. Though they may have felt a small bit of vindication, the fact is no amount of money his daughter, girlfriend, and mother received, is going to bring back Fluff.
The scary part is that I know there is no way for the police or any overzealous vigilante to know who I am or what I’ve done while I’m walking down the street. They wouldn’t know that I’ve opened up for The President in front of forty thousand people or that I was the only man who spoke on a Ladies Night fundraiser with The First Lady and Jill Biden. They wouldn’t know that I graduated from Northwestern, or that I built a robot to win my 8th grade science fair. They wouldn’t know that I’ve raised money for the arts and the environment, that I’ve tutored young people and taught at one of the worst schools in Chicago. All they would know (which is the same thing that George Zimmerman knew about Trayvon) is that I am a black male, which in turn makes me a suspect, and you will receive no penalty for treating me as such.
Mr. Alexander, I am a white great-grandmother who was born and raised in Mississippi. My parents were poor nobodies, but perhaps because they were, they had views about equality that were heretical in that environment. My mother was excoriated for allowing the black women from across the road to come to the front door for butter and eggs. My father at times sold furniture door-to-door in the sparsely settled rural area we lived in. Being neither a gentleman farmer or a sharecropper, he had to work for others from time to time to put food on the table and keep a roof over our heads. He was outraged by the business practice of selling on credit with compound interest so that the buyer never got to pay off the debt. He barely scraped together a living because he got into the habit of advising his mostly black customers not to buy until they saved enough (nearly impossible) to purchase outright. I saw my mother's sadness and I absorbed my father's angst. But neither seared the indelible mark across my soul like my own experience as a fifth grader in a locked-down country classroom while an armed posse hunted down a black man with bloodhounds.
I don't remember the moment when the teachers – all four of them – got the word. What I do remember is the admonishment to stay away from the windows, the tight steely face of my teacher and the story that she told us. A white man of wealth had been shot and killed by the black suitor of his maid. It was dark when he came to the house and asked to see her. Mr. Harrington refused, so we were told, because he believed she was abused. The man didn't leave but waited outside the house till he got a clear view of Mr. H. and shot him through a window, killing him.
It seemed to be a clear-cut case of murder, one that would surely result in a guilty verdict in any court, but particularly in one in my state. But there was no trial; there was no intent ever to have a trial. The man who came to see his girlfriend, the man who shot Mr. H., the man who never had a name was hunted with the intent to kill him. The bloodhounds tracked him through the dense tangle of woods and the posse shot him on the spot.
It all happened while we, all five of us fifth and sixth grade white students, whiled away our time in the classroom. A deputy returned to the school to tell the teachers it was over and we could resume our normal activities. The problem for me was that nothing was 'normal' after that.
I was a skinny little girl who spent a lot of time alone – in the woods. Nature was my refuge and the woods were friendly and welcoming. I had carved out my paths to my favorite places where I could sit and think all to myself. I could not imagine being chased through the undergrowth of brambles and briars by dogs (my favorite companions) and big men with guns desperate and determined to kill me. The horror of that played out like a movie in my mind then and I have replayed it many times.
I have struggled with this story over the years and it has remained static as we children were never given any more information. I tell you this because I cannot be you, cannot feel what you feel, but this comes close, I believe. Over the years, I have come to realize that ours is not just the black/white world that I left so many, many years ago, but a world of we/they, us/others. My own life experiences – most often as an activist underdog – have left me with the sad fact that the hatred and injustice that we deplore in other countries runs just as deep here. I wish it were not so.
I wish you well. When I say, "I know how you feel", understand that I really can't – but I believe I can.
Consider this a letter from the heart of your white grandmother.
This is a poignant story, and I am so glad you shared it here. You made me cry. I will be sure Marquis reads this.
Love and respect,
thanks, Hollye; it's been on my mind again lately. I've never told it publicly before now. Keep up your good work; it's tiring, I know, but worthwhile.