There’s no denying that eyes across the nation are locked on Trayvon Martin and the man who killed him.
Mamas repeat lifelong safety instructions to sons they’d die to protect. Daddies, already molded by the friction of being black and male in America, lecture their sons into men rightfully displeased with stereotypes that taint civil rights and handcuff American justice. And communities don “hoodies” – from the streets to Congress and from Hollywood to Pullen Park – to demand justice, thus far missing as Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, claiming self-defense against the unarmed teen, remains free.
This isn’t the first time the senseless killing of youth – Emmett Till; the Freedom Summer activists Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner; the Birmingham church bombing victims and countless others since – sparked a national outcry and changed our nation for better or worse. This isn’t the first revealing of our frailty as folks who discriminate and judge and hurt and kill without right or cause. This isn’t the first time the message that being black can be a disadvantage rings so clearly.
But I needed to hear from young, black boys – the pre-teens and teens receiving those messages from a nation focused on the many intricacies of the Trayvon Martin case.
I wondered how boys nearing Martin’s age feel. Is this the time in their lives when innocence is lost, when caution overrides freedoms of childhood and democracy, and when society forces African-American boys into a sobering reality about life for them now and in the future?
“It really makes me think about the stereotypes we black males are portrayed as,” said Julian Brodie, a sophomore at Raleigh Charter High School. “More than ever, I really don’t want to succumb to that stereotype, even though people are going to think that’s who I am, regardless of who I really am.
“They’re going to think I’m a certain type of person because I’m a black male.”
A group of African-American boys caught my attention during a Facebook-organized community rally for justice Monday at Pullen Park: the N.C. Runnin’ Rebels, an AAU basketball and mentoring club, co-founded by St. Augustine’s College alumni Aaron Clyburn and Mike Johnson.
Camron McNeil, with mom Brandy Lawrence nearby, said he was glad to be there.
“It was good that we did something that wasn’t violent,” said the 12-year-old, an East Garner Magnet Middle School sixth-grader. “I think we made a big difference.”
Wednesday night, I sat down to chat with Camron and his teammates during a practice at the Raleigh Boys Club.
“Anything can happen,” said Kenyon Burt, also 12 and in sixth grade at East Garner Magnet.
He’s been told that over and over by a lot of people, he said. But now, he heeds warnings, “paying attention to where I am because anybody could be watching, and I don’t know who they are or what they’re thinking.”
His teammates, encouraged to attend the rally by their coaches, who canceled practice to go with them, are more cautious too. They are concerned that just like fashion fads and gang-related colors and hand gestures are off-limits, so too is their freedom.
“It feels like I can’t walk around in some types of clothes, even if I like them,” said Jahlil Johnson, 11, a student at Pre-Eminent Charter School and son of Mike Johnson, a Runnin’ Rebels coach.
Jaylin Parker, 11 and in sixth grade at East Millbrook Middle School, added, “When I go out of my house, I have to be aware of where I am, because other people might think I’m a threat to them because of my skin color.”
“It’s unfair,” said Tyrese Frink, an 11-year-old from Durham. “We do have the freedom in America to go anywhere and everywhere, but you have to be safe wherever you go because of your surroundings.
“All this time after segregation, some things are still not right in our society,” he added. “There’s still racism.”
Tyrese’s older brother, Marquise Frink, a freshman at Southern High School in Durham, said he first learned about the case on Facebook, then on BET’s 106 & Park.
“It could’ve been me,” said Marquise, 14. “I used to walk around with my friends, through neighborhoods, not knowing all of my surroundings. Now, I have to pay attention, be more mindful.”
Deondre Johnson said he was one of only two students in his English class at Broughton High School who attended the march and vigil, but the topic led to a lengthy discussion about how young men should carry themselves and whether Martin’s murder was a matter of racism or anger.
“I’m always aware of what’s going on around me, and the people around me,” said Johnson, Jahlil’s older brother. “I just don’t hang out.”
Julian Brodie, the Raleigh Charter sophomore, found another lesson from the world’s response: “There are people out there who realize the wrongness of what happened in Florida, people everywhere stepping up and saying, ‘This is wrong,’ ” he said. “It shows there are people who are above this whole idea of stereotyping that Zimmerman apparently believes in.”
Raleigh. America. Stay focused. Our children are watching.