Equity & Diversity Opinion

Trayvon Martin and the Value of a Young African American Male Life

By Marilyn Rhames — July 17, 2013 4 min read
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I saw him with my own eyes. In the darkest place on earth above ground—my womb—is an avid swimmer. A man child. The new love of my life. I already have the gift of two daughters, and now I am having a son!

Oh, God ... I’m going to have a son.

I am an African American woman with an African American husband, living on the South Side of Chicago. I’m ashamed to admit that after my elation at seeing the image of two precious little hands and feet, that adorable tiny nose in his profile, and the four contorting chambers of his heart beating vigorously at 158 times per minute, there was fear.

Fear that this 20-week-old fetus will one day become a young black man who will have to walk down the street and defend his fundamental right to be. Once the ultrasound machine was turned off, I sat up and wiped the clear lubricating gel off my belly. I was alone with my baby. And I prayed.

Lord, please protect this child.

Since one out of every four black babies are aborted in this country, I have already spared my little one a very real and present form of violence. But the battle for life and the pursuit of happiness will only get more intense after birth, as the power to protect will increasingly be out of my hands. It’s scary to watch how a young black boy strives to become a man in a city like mine.

With more black men in prison or under supervised probation* than in college, and just as many seem to be buried as those who are breathing, it’s obvious that becoming a successful African American male is an uphill path not paved in privilege. A young man’s success will have to be an extremely intentional effort on the part of his parents, schools, and communities. Otherwise, the default mode is death or incarceration.

Say what you want about the Trayvon Martin trial verdict, but it’s clear that this young black teenager lost his life defending his right to be. He was simply walking home at 7:15 p.m. in a black hoodie, armed with a bag of Skittles and an Arizona ice tea. His very existence was seen as a threat by a white-Hispanic neighborhood “peace” patroller. George Zimmerman followed Trayvon by car, then by foot, confronted him, and ultimately shot the boy with a concealed weapon after Zimmerman began to lose in a fistfight.

Trayvon’s murder has made headlines, but many other equally tragic losses do not. With 72 shootings including 12 deaths in Chicago over the July 4th weekend alone, the black-on-black and Latino-on-Latino crime is completely out of control. Many people of color are engaging in self-hatred and are no longer valuing the lives of their own proverbial brothers and sisters.

Someone tell me: What caused the shift in our culture where more and more people in this country have stopped valuing life? The news of murder is now as mundane as a furniture sale on President’s Day—that is, unless the victim is someone you love.

And the lives of African American males seem to be the least valued of all. Even a reader on an Education Week blog wrote Trayvon Martin off as a “thug.” (Which he was not.) Does it make us feel better to know that a murdered black teenager was a “thug” or a “gangbanger”? Do those labels make his life worthless? Do we ever consider the pain that caused an innocent baby boy to grow up and choose that path?

As an educator, the best I can do is believe in my students—black, white, or in between. I can tell my students that they are all important and special and deserve to find success in life—and really mean it!

After I affirm their right to be—to have just as much purpose for living as those who know how to speak in proper English or those who can afford to live on the safer side of town—I must also hold them accountable for achieving their very best and trying to change the trajectory of their lives. This requires “tough love,” which is one of the greatest weapons against the default mode.

Schools that have low academic expectations and discipline policies that are overly sympathetic and thus enable bad behavior only serve to devalue the lives of their students. Educators can’t allow a student who may already feel inadequate because of his turbulent home life or the dilapidated state of her community to just get by with a subpar performance at school.

We have to put the pressure on. We have to push. We have to struggle with our students to help them give birth to the successes their futures can bring.

That’s what I’ll be doing at the end of November. I’ll be sweating and I’ll be pushing and I’ll be laboring to bring forth my beautiful baby boy. It’ll be hard, but I’ll do it with all my might because I love my little guy and I want him to live, despite any maladies he may or may not have.

And one day, I’ll ask his teachers, his school, and his community to join me in pushing him toward a life that is full of faith in God, quality education, and civic responsibility. Still, it only takes one person’s devaluing of life to bring a lifetime investment of love and hope to an abrupt and tragic end.

So I’ve started to pray early, and I don’t plan to stop.

* “or under supervised probation” added on 7/19/13 to be more factually correct.

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The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.