BETWEEN me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.
W.E.B. DuBois pondered this question in the first chapter of "The Souls of Black Folk." In light of the George Zimmerman verdict and its affirmation of all that's been wrong with this nation for generations, it bears repeating among the millions of black Americans living here.
"How does it feel to be a problem?"
It's a long story. Long story short, America as a collective entity hasn't quite come to grips with what to do with or how to treat a people who, just a scant 150 years ago, were considered nothing more than farming implements and thus unworthy of being considered full human beings. Old habits die hard and learned behaviors prove hard to unlearn. After generations of learning how to loath and despise your fellow former farming implements, it proves hard to finally accept them as human beings.
George Zimmerman tapped into this national stream of consciousness to fulfill his fantasy of being a "neighborhood hero." It resulted in the death of a young man who, if it weren't for his misfortune of being born a seventh son in a land that merely tolerates and ultimately ridicules his presence, would have been home that fateful night with that pack of Skittles his brother asked for.
Trayvon Martin's death was treated as a "no harm no foul" moment by law enforcement until local and national outrage built up. His murderer's trial was treated as a vindication of his actions and an indictment of his victim's existence. By all accounts, mainstream America won't mourn the loss of someone it saw as "a problem."
Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows. That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads. Alas, with the years all this fine contempt began to fade; for the worlds I longed for, and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine. But they should not keep these prizes, I said; some, all, I would wrest from them. Just how I would do it I could never decide: by reading law, by healing the sick, by telling the wonderful tales that swam in my head,—some way.
With other black boys the strife was not so fiercely sunny: their youth shrunk into tasteless sycophancy, or into silent hatred of the pale world about them and mocking distrust of everything white; or wasted itself in a bitter cry, Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house? The shades of the prison-house closed round about us all: walls strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night who must plod darkly on in resignation, or beat unavailing palms against the stone, or steadily, half hopelessly, watch the streak of blue above.
Black Americans have spent countless generations as outcasts in their own house, shunned and loathed unless they could somehow be of service for mainstream America's benefit, whether it be in self-depreciating entertainment, quiet servitude or harsh and unrelenting manual labor. Perhaps Trayvon Martin didn't pay heed to it that night, but he was an outcast in the very neighborhood he thought he would have been safe in. The constant and unending perception of he and others like him as "problems" to be "solved" dovetailed with Zimmerman's desire to "solve" that "problem."
The absolute refusal to see black Americans as anything but collective problems and individual successes (but only within strict, narrowly defined confines) and eager willingness to glamorize the worst traits and rumors about a collective people is how the Sanford police department refused to see anything wrong with murdering a young black male with little to no cause. It's also led to a sympathetic legal climate where generous concern was shown for the perpetrator's "unfortunate" predicament, as encouraged by his defense team. The six jurors, five whites and one Hispanic for buffering concerns of racially motivated impropriety, were merely messengers delivering a statement that rings true for black Americans the nation over: "We see you as a problem."
Oddly enough, Native Americans understand how it feels to be a problem. After decades of the U.S. "solving" the problem with forced migrations, mass genocide and sequestration onto rapidly shrinking reservations, the Native American problem is slowly solving itself through mass alcoholism and suicide. Since black America proved too resilient for that treatment, it's taking legally sanctioned acts of malice, as delivered by police departments throughout the nation, to solve the problem. Mass media and it's constant portrayal of blacks as dangerous beings or laughable buffoons is another way of encouraging solutions to the problem. Even groups like the Ku Klux Klan once helped out by solving the problem in their own unique way.
The heart of the so-called "problem" lies with an unstoppable and long-coming shift in sociopolitical power between mainstream America and America's minority groups. The fear of Reconstruction heralding the arrival and cementing of black political power drove the ex-Confederate backlash and the institution of measures to stymie said power. The fear of the Civil Rights Act as a milestone for reclaiming black political power fueled the ex-Dixiecrat backlash and the conservative "silent majority" movement that resulted in the formation of the GOP as we know it today. The fear of Barack Obama as a harbinger of things to come in terms of black political power drove the Republican backlash, the formation of the "Tea Party" as its weaponized arm and the unleashing of rabid racism, sexism and discrimination among the once largely quiet unreconstructed. To look any closer would warrant its own discussion in the near future.
Throughout its history, America feared that particular problem getting out of hand. That night, George Zimmerman "feared" a particular problem "getting out of hand." Funny how retrospective history can be.
RT @profblmkelley: I have a nine-year old who followed the trial with me. This verdict made her feel afraid. @lauradeethomp
— Matthew Elliot (@matttbastard) July 14, 2013
As it should the parents of any black American child, especially in this day and age. Especially when full-grown adults have no compunction against seeing young black children as "thugs" or "thugs in training."
The irony of this entire tragedy is if Trayvon Martin was every bit of the cannabis-consuming, jewelry-stealing gangster thug he was purported to be, Zimmerman would have stayed in the car as he was instructed by 911 dispatchers. Rousting an otherwise defenseless young kid going about his business based on preconceptions is one thing. Doing the same to a genuine thug with no fear of jailtime will likely get you seriously hurt or murdered.
Instead of being murdered at the hands of a man too mentally and behaviorally inept to be a real police, Trayvon Martin would likely still be alive, albeit dealing with a civil lawsuit against the Sanford police department on brutality and civil rights grounds.
Had Trayvon Martin been "Todd Martin," a creature every bit as photogenic and "all-American" as could be, George Zimmerman's fate would had been as good as sealed. Had George Zimmerman been "Tray Zimmerman," his date with the needle would be chiseled in stone. Had it been a "black on black" affair, no one but Martin's parents and friends would have cared. Black on black murders are considered an effective way of solving the black problem.
How does it feel to be a problem?
If you're asking, it feels downright shitty. But maybe it's mainstream America that's the problem.