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Tue March 20, 2012
Opinion

Trayvon Martin: The Lingering Memory Of Dead Boys

Originally published on Tue March 20, 2012 6:05 pm

Tayari Jones has written for McSweeney's, The New York Times and The Believer. Her most recent book is Silver Sparrow.

Like many Americans, I have been glued to the television eager for details about the tragic murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. I am not sure what I hoped to discover, as each new piece of evidence is more disturbing than the last.

I listened to the recently released 911 tapes on my office computer and cried in public. I was up until after midnight scanning my Twitter feed for news and comfort, a 21st century vigil of sorts.

I am the latest in a long line of black women speaking the names of our murdered boys. This is my role as woman in the African-American community. But my ties to his case stretch back to when I was a little girl growing up in Atlanta. When I was in the fifth and sixth grade, dozens of African-American children were murdered. Almost all of them were black boys. Even though Wayne Williams is believed to be the murderer, questions and scars persist.

Learning about death and dying is part of growing up. If we are lucky, we come to understand that death is natural through the passing of a grandparent or some other elder. If we are lucky, we will be taught something about a life well lived.

But for too many of us, we are made aware of our own mortality seeing our peers — the boys we want to go to the movies with, the boys who used to pull our hair — we learned that they could be killed for the crime being themselves. Young. Black. And Male.

When the Atlanta child murders occurred, I was just at the age when we were noticing the differences between the sexes. As the body count increased I realized that in my community the difference was that if you were a boy, someone might try to kill you.

Recent reports have surfaced that Trayvon was on the phone with a girl as he walked from the store where he had bought candy. The girl on the phone was the last person to speak to Trayvon Martin.

I am filled with sorrow for her.

When I was young, girls were not mere bystanders as we watched our mothers groom our brothers to live in a world that feared them. Boys were taught not to look police, security guards, or anyone with authority directly in the eye. They should say only "yes sir" or "no sir." We, too, were in training, learning to protect the men we loved. We became our mothers' surrogates, reminding the guys to "keep cool," to "keep quiet." We knew they wanted to impress us, but we begged them not to talk back, as boys always do.

Today, at 41 years old, my girlhood is behind me, but the memories of dead boys linger. Most childhood fears are terrors that you grow out of. As you age, you realize that there is no monster under the bed.

But the worry that someone will look at a black man and deem him to be "suspicious," and feel justified in killing him, is a threat that only deepens as he grows older. If he is lucky enough to get older.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Earlier this hour, we reported on the case of Trayvon Martin. He was the black teenager shot to death last month by George Zimmerman, a member of a neighborhood watch group. Zimmerman claims Martin was acting suspiciously and that he felt threatened. Zimmerman has faced no charges. But Martin's family and his lawyer say he was just an innocent kid who had stepped outside to grab a snack. For commentator Tayari Jones, the shooting has revived a familiar conversation about race.

TAYARI JONES: Like many Americans, I have been glued to the television eager for details about the tragic murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. I'm not sure what I hoped to discover because each new piece of evidence is more disturbing than the last. I listened to the recently released 911 tapes from my office computer and cried in public. I was up until after midnight scanning my Twitter feed for news and comfort, a 21st-century vigil of sorts.

I'm only the latest in a long line of black women speaking the names of our murdered boys. This is my role as a woman in the community. But my ties to this case stretch back to when I was a little girl growing up in Atlanta, Georgia. When I was in the fifth and sixth grade, dozens of African-American children were murdered. Almost all of them were boys. Even though Wayne Williams is believed to be the murderer, questions and scars persist. Learning about death and dying is part of growing up.

If we're lucky, we come to understand that death is natural through the passing of a grandparent or some other elder. But for too many of us, we are made aware of our own mortality by seeing our peers: the boys we wanted to go to the movies with, the boys who used to pull our hair. We learned that they could be killed for the crime of being themselves: young, black and male. When the Atlanta child murders occurred, I was just at the age when we were noticing the differences between the sexes.

As the body count increased, I realized that in my community the difference was that if you were a boy, someone might try to kill you. Recent reports have surfaced that Trayvon was on the telephone with a girl as he walked from the store where he had bought candy. The girl on the phone was the last person to speak to Trayvon Martin. I'm filled with sorrow for her. When I was young, girls were not mere bystanders as we watch our mothers groom our brothers to live in a world that feared them.

Boys were taught not to look police, security guards or anyone with authority directly in the eye. They should say only yes, sir, or no, sir. We, too, were in training, learning to protect the men we loved. We became our mothers' surrogates, reminding the guys to keep cool, to be quiet. We knew they wanted to impress us, but we begged them not to talk back the way boys always do. Today, at 41 years old, my girlhood is behind me, but the memories of dead boys linger.

Most childhood fears are terrors that you grow out of. As you age, you realize that there is no monster under the bed. But the worry that someone will look at a black man and deem him to be suspicious and feel justified in killing him, this is a threat that only deepens as he grows older - if he's lucky enough to get older.

SIEGEL: Tayari Jones is the author of the novel "Silver Sparrow." You can comment on this essay at our website. Go to npr.org and click on Opinion. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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