Trayvon Martin: Someday We’ll All Be Free

“The only thing white people have that black people need, or should want, is power.” [1]

“When a white man faces a black man, especially if the black man is helpless, terrible things are revealed.” [2]

We recently witnessed one of these “terrible things” in the life and death of Trayvon Martin.

James Baldwin and Malcolm X are two of my favorite writers. I fell in love with their works during my two and one half year stay in New York City. Being able to ride the trains and traverse the streets they identify in their narratives made their stories more real. However, to my surprise, I found it very difficult to write this blog. This blog had me stumped. I wasn’t at a loss for words because I didn’t have anything to say; I was stuck because I was trying to make sense of their narratives in relation to the murder of Trayvon Martin.

In the past, whenever I engaged the works of Malcolm X or James Baldwin I was able to make connections between their experiences, and my own realities or those of my friends and love ones. However, when considering a recent reading of their works in tandem with the circumstances leading up to, during, and immediately following the murder of Trayvon Martin, my conceptualizations of historical legacies and societal trajectories have changed. Social networks have alerted the world of this heinous crime and have forced cable conglomerates to discuss this killing as part of the “news;” however, what happens when the trending ends? What’s next?

I read The Fire Next Time and The Autobiography of Malcolm X within the context of the recent developments lack of developments related to the death of Travyon in the forefront of my mind. Consequentially, I read these narratives with a different lens. The change in my outlook was not intentional; rather, this shift resulted from the lack of attention and coverage surrounding Trayvon’s death. During my study of these texts I was particularly sensitive to Baldwin and Malcolm X’s discussions about  the need for people with “power” to exercise compassion and empathy, and for them to even relinquish “power” so that others may experience similar liberties and freedoms.

In a letter to his nephew Baldwin wrote: “We cannot be free until they are free.” [3] Likewise, Malcolm X declares the importance of acknowledging and respecting human rights, then civil rights. [4]

For me, these assertions speak volumes because they indirectly answer the question “What’s next?” Baldwin declares the need for collaboration between people of different backgrounds. [5] As a member of the Nation of Islam Malcolm X endorses the idea of establishing an independent black nation within the United States, and he vows to “[tell] the white man about himself.” [6] Together, Baldwin and Malcolm X seem to suggest there is not much the (seemingly) powerless can do to change the hearts and minds of the powerful. Both of their writings imply that change comes from within, not from without.

As I think about the circumstances and aftermath surrounding the deaths of Travyon Martin, Emmett Till, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, James Byrd Jr., James Craig Anderson, Oscar Grant, Yusef Hawkins, and countless others, I continue to ponder the question “What’s next?” and how Baldwin and Malcolm X’s solutions could potentially manifest themselves in contemporary times. After the news about Martin’s death circulates through the social media circuit and on the nightly news, what’s next? When, and if they ever decide to arrest, charge, and try George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin, what’s next? How will the U.S. respond to future heinous acts? How quickly will people respond? Will they respond? Who will the law protect? When will we begin to have honest discussions about the realities of racism, classism and sexism?

In no way am I a cynical person, nor do I have a defeatist attitude; however, I can’t help but to think about what will happen next. I was recently in conversation with a friend about his experiences as a one of few Black men in graduate studies at a prestigious university. During our talk he shared his frustrations, doubts, challenges, and concerns. By the close of our discussion, similar to my difficulties in writing this blog, I couldn’t find a response to pacify his qualms. After moments of pondering on what he shared, I directed him to Donny Hathaway’s Someday We’ll All Be Free. I hope that song provided him with some solace—as that’s all I had to offer.

[1] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: The Dial Press, 1963), 11.

[2] Ibid, 67.

[3] Ibid, 24.

[4] Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley (New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 1999), 183.

[5] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: The Dial Press, 1963), 111.

[6] Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley (New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 1999), 188.

6 thoughts on “Trayvon Martin: Someday We’ll All Be Free

  1. As I was reading your blog post, I was watching an interview of Treyvon Martin’s parents on TV. It seems as though everyone is asking, “whats next?” or better yet, “why is it taking so long?” for an arrest to be made. People across the country are enraged over the way that this has played out, and the lack of action. I would hope that these calls for action would change the hearts and minds of the powerful, and as you say, even when Treyvon Martin’s death isn’t “trending” anymore.

    1. Now that a little time has passed, it is interesting to look back. Treyvon Martin’s death became the center of so much media attention, but for only a brief period of time. I think it is still too soon to know exactly what the long term impact will be, but we should strive to make sure that we don’t forget what happened.

  2. Ashley, as I was reading your blog, I was trying to come up with some sort of a response. However, like you, I was having trouble figuring out what to say, and the right words to describe my thoughts. It amazes me that in three days KONY 2012 was viewed by over 80 million people are around the world, but Trayvon Martin’s death on February 26th has only started to “trend” in the past week. As one of the people who was immediately caught up in KONY 2012, it disheartens me that I was unaware of Trayvon’s murder until recently. It makes me wonder if this fault is my own, or due to the lack of attention received by the media until the petition was made by Trayvon’s parents. How can we at home prevent these events from happening? As you said in your blog, “What comes next?”

  3. One of my biggest issues with our country, and I’m not saying this is right or wrong, has always been that we largely focus on tragic events around the world, and not in our very own country. I think Trayvon’s murder is a prime example of this. When will we realize that the focus of the United States needs to start in the United States? Maybe if we can work on our own problems then we’ll have the right to work on other country’s problems. Just a thought.

  4. While I agree that it is important for us to pay attention to domestic issues, I don’t think that this precludes us from being engaged in the amelioration of human rights issues outside our borders. The United States, even in the midst of our current recovery, has the financial ability to affect real change in the world if it so chose. Discretionary spending in our government that includes Defense spending (but excludes medicaid, medicare, and Social Security) amounts to 3.75% of our GDP. Many studies have shown that if we as a nation decided to concentrate our efforts and spend a third of that money, we could end world hunger. If every “industrialized” or “first-world” nation did so as well we could also end poverty, homelessness, under-education, and poor healthcare.

    Regardless of this, as members of a participatory democracy we must always remember the words of Baron Leonard H. Courtney: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

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