This year, in 7th grade, my son read a book for school. The book was, “If You Come Softly” by Jaqueline Woodson. He was genuinely enjoying the book, deeply identifying with Jeremiah, the personable, well-rounded, basketball and music-loving African-American main character. He didn’t see the end coming. But I did.
*Spoiler alert: stop reading here if you don’t want the end ruined.*
My son didn’t see it coming because at its core, the book is an inter-racial love story. He enjoyed the tale of love and yearning between Ellie, a young Jewish teen, and Jeremiah. But at the end of the book, the charismatic, sweet Miah is shot to death for the heinous crime of running through central park while dribbling a basketball. He’s not wearing a hoodie, but he matches the description of a man the police are after. He dies almost instantly.
This story sparked several conversations in my house. I love that my son trusted that the love story was enough, until he read the ending; I imagine he won’t be so naive again. It’s tough to watch my son go from reading books like Harry Potter to books with themes this real and heavy. Yet we soothed ourselves in the knowledge that “If You Come Softly” is fiction, even as we knew how closely it mirrors real life.
But on the heels of our reading, real life has jumped out and shown us how right we were to not be lulled by the “fiction” of the book. The tale runs all too close to the recent killing of Trayvon Martin. Trayvon is the 17 year old African-American teenager pursued by a town watchman, George Zimmerman, for looking “suspicious.” He too was part of a love story, on the phone with his girlfriend as the incident began to unfold.
While there are many emerging facts in the telling of the incident, two things are clear. Trayvon was unarmed (aside from a pack of Skittles, a cell phone, and a can of iced tea). And George Zimmerman has been neither charged nor arrested for his role in Trayvon’s death.
I will not try to sort out all the facts. I am hoping that the grand jury will do a better job than the initial police investigation, where they quickly accepted that the shooting was in self-defense and neglected to run a background check and drug/alcohol screen on Zimmerman.
I’ve listened to the 911 tapes. Zimmerman seems to automaticaly connect being black and wearing a hoodie with being ‘suspicious.’ Listening to him talk, that alone was enough to pursue this boy, this child. It makes it very difficult for me to imagine any other scenario than a racially-motivated killing, but in my own plea for justice, I will wait to hear the facts before jumping to a conclusion. But make no mistake about it, without public outcry, there would be no “hearing of the facts.” No thorough investigation. No trial. No justice.
Maybe because of the book, the whole thing still seems so unreal to me, despite the fact that I know that there are many, many kids like Trayvon for whom we don’t hold vigils, for whom there is no outrage. That profiling based on race is far from a rare event. That my own children will be subjected to it as they get older. And that as the Trayvon Martin case shows, it deeply hurts us all.
But this time, the deepest hurt resides in the loss of this young man. It lives in the heart of his parents who lost their son and are left to rally and beg for justice. No matter what the facts bring, we all need to hear them. In the meantime, we don our hoodies and sign petitions because “We are Trayvon.”
My son is young and bright and hopeful. He will become a teenager himself this week. He is alive. I can’t change the fact that life is scarier than fiction. I can’t change the fact that Trayvon was killed. But I can help to change the fact that we’re ok with it. I can help him see the outrage, the cries for justice, the togetherness, and the mourning for this young man.
You can too.
“We shall sit here softly
Beneath two different years
And the rich earth between us
Shall drink our tears.”
– Audre Lorde, quoted in If You Come Softly by Jaqueline Woodson