Rallies took place in Sanford on Feb. 5, which would have been his 18th birthday. Here, Sybrina Fulton, third from left, and Tracy Martin, fourth from left, raise their hands in prayer during the March for Peace at Miami’s Ives Estate Park in honor of their late son.Joe Raedle / Getty Images
I don’t know George Zimmerman.
I didn’t know Trayvon Martin.
And many of us will never know what really happened between the two of them on the night of February 26, 2012.
Did Trayvon attack Geroge Zimmerman? Did George Zimmerman “profile” Trayvon? Was Trayvon in the wrong place at the wrong time? Was George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watchman, right to be suspicious of this hooded outsider?
Who knows? Such questions will be hotly debated in the days, weeks, months, and maybe even years to come.
What I find most troubling about the Trayvon Martin case, though, is not the unknown that enshrouds the killing itself but the faith crisis that I know it brings to bear.
Much attention has been given to the events of Saturday night, and rightfully so. Saturday night, immediately following the verdict— “not guilty” — protestors took to the streets, to the blogosphere and to the airways to express their displeasure with what they perceived as the criminal justice system’s failure to deliver justice. Saturday night, many African Americans had to endure the heart-wrenching thought that yet another young black man’s life was snatched away with impunity.
But what of Sunday morning?
What thoughts were peculating within the minds of faithful on Sunday morning? How difficult was it, really, for African American parents to wake up on the Lord’s day, put on their Sunday best, and go to their particular houses of worship so that they could pray that the God of all power protect their children? Certainly something was different about last Sunday morning, July 14th. Did some of these parents realize that their prayers may not be answered —that their sons may not be protected? How many grew increasingly concerned that their sons were far too vulnerable to wanton acts of racial violence?
On Sunday morning, were these concerned parents given the opportunity to protest, to express their anger, to ask some very troubling but necessary theological questions, such as: Didn’t Trayvon’s parents pray that God put a hedge around their son?
Unfortunately, the black church is too often not a place that is amenable to such questions. In fact, I am sure that on Sunday morning some hoary headed preacher made the rather dubious declaration that somehow “God’s gonna get the glory outta this!” so as to ensure that those who feel their faith was on shaky footing would have something to lean on. But these platitudes fail to assuage the angst that many African American parents feel concerning the safety of their children, especially their black sons who are deemed a threat to society.
Day after day, African American parents must hope against hope that their sons will return home, unharmed, after a dangerous day of simply being a black man in America. Day after day their faith is put on trail as their sons run the risk of being accosted by a “watchful” bystander who wants to ensure that the outsiders are never allowed in to certain protected or “gated” spaces. All these parents hope for is that others will have the faith to see what they see in their sons: a young black man who is not thug or some kind of threatening object but a son full of promise.
Suffice it to say, these anxious onlookers, like George Zimmerman, fail to see these black men as sons at all—rather they see them as disconnected entities, whose termination has no communal repercussions. Let’s be honest, George Zimmerman did not see Trayvon Martin as a son, a young man whose parents and community had invested so much in, a young man that they had expected so much of, but only as an embodied threat—an isolated thing—that could be disposed of.
But Trayvon was a son. He was a son whose very being shined forth new possibilities of what a black man could be. Many have attempted to encapsulate his existence in terms of what transpired on the night of his murder. What a terrible mistake! As a son in process, Trayvon, like many other young black men, expressed the multifarious ways of being a man, both the good and the bad. As such, there were facets of his personhood that could only be observed if George Zimmerman as was brave enough to look underneath the hood, so to speak.
The Trayvon Martin case, then, is about more than race—it is about the need for us as a society to value our young black males as sons. They are men who are still in the process of becoming.
The killing of Trayvon Martin is but another case of that process coming to an abrupt end. It is for this reason that this tragedy is, above all, a crisis of faith in that many onlookers are too quick to believe they know what they are observing when they encounter a black man. “We know Trayvon Martin. . .we know everything about black men,” boast those of little faith. Such persons put their faith in the stereotypes and the stigmas and the caricatures of black manhood, without considering that young men, like Trayvon, are currently and are becoming more than what their eyes see.
Next Sunday morning, in black churches across America, we should not only pray that God protect our black sons but also that we all do a better job of protecting these vulnerable sons as well. For one, we need to do a better job of purporting the image of young black men as sons—not just as black men—but really underscore that they are sons who are still in the process of becoming. And that their journey should not be cut short simply because someone else—an outsider perhaps—does not have faith that their future holds great promise.
This lack of faith leads to so many problems.
It is what caused the murder of Trayvon Martin on the night of February 26, 2012.
It leaves many of us within the black community feeling as though God has turned a deaf ear to our pleas for protection.
But most of all it robs us of the great promise held within the life of a black son.
It’s so sad . . . Trayvon Martin is a son who has stopped shining.
Jay-Paul Hinds is assistant professor of pastoral care, practical theology, and psychology of religion at Howard University School of Divinity. His work uses psychoanalytic and phenomenological theories to interrogate not just the disavowal but also the possible restoration of the sonship identity in black manhood.