One Author Tackles Trayvon Martin and the Deadly Legacy of Vigilantism

March 23rd, 2012

Published on ZNet, Interview by Koritha Mitchell and Jamilah King, March 22, 2012.

The unprovoked killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin has sparked widespread national outrage, particularly among black Americans. The particulars of the case are, at best, tragic, and at worst, horrifying: Martin was visiting a friend of his father’s in a small gated community outside of Orlando, sporting a gray hoodie and armed with a pack of Skittles and a can of iced tea. Along the way he became a target of nearby resident George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old member of the local Neighborhood Watch, who thought the teen looked “suspicious.” Zimmerman then shot and killed Martin—and, so far, it’s been with legal impunity, protected in part by Florida’s expansive definition of self-defense … //  

… One thing that stood out to me was that many of the playwrights that you talk about were black women. It underscores the profound impact that lynching had on black women even though the majority of documented victims were men. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

I think that women take a front seat with these plays for a couple reasons. One is that they didn’t necessarily have access to formal political activism through organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League. They were more likely to not have actual leadership positions in those organizations. I feel like the lynching plays are part of how they used non-traditional political activism.

The other reason is that it’s a way of telling the truth about how this person’s death is really the beginning of a long struggle. It’s the beginning of a long engagement with pain. ‘How do we figure out how to continue live in this country that allows for our brother, our father, our husband to be lynched?’ I think that women taking the lead on the plays gives us a real sense of the lasting impact that lynching had on black communities.

The other thing that strikes me about a majority of the playwrights is that a lot of them were living in Washington, D.C. when they wrote these plays. It’s a real commentary on, number one, the fact that Washington, D.C. is below the Mason-Dixon line. As our nation’s Capitol, I think we need to remember that, and all of the things that has meant. But also, they had front row seats to the nation’s hypocrisy as the anti-lynching bills were rejected time and time again by the legislature right there in Washington, D.C. I think that gave them a real perspective on the hypocrisy of the nation.

And to get a little bit more into the historical legacy of that hypocrisy, what immediate connections can you draw between the legacy of these plays and contemporary black media? I know that’s a huge question.

We need to know just how much black success has been a part of our history. We need to know that success has not been something that was separate from experiencing attacks and violence from the mainstream. In other words, you don’t just get to be the largest prison population just because you’re doing something wrong. That’s not what’s going on. It’s also in the midst of a culture that’s very much against your success. If we know more about how success — even in the face of the worst odds — has been made a part of our legacy, I think that gives us a certain kind of strength that we need right now.

It also seems to me that the plays, because they targeted black audiences in the midst of this violence against blacks, remind us of the importance of community conversation. The importance of speaking to each other about who we are and what we face. That seems really crucial to me because you always need people who are going to address the mainstream and try to get them to understand the nature of the injustice that’s circulating around us. The Trayvon Martin situation is an excellent example of that. We need people who are willing to articulate why this is a grave injustice, to articulate why ‘post-racial’ claims are not helping anything. We need people who will do that.

But just as much, we need people who are focused on black communities and affirming black communities and making sure that we don’t believe the hype because that is what can be so telling, it seems to me. When we don’t focus on affirming ourselves and each other because we’re so busy addressing whites.

In the process of your research for this book, did you come across anything that was surprising? … (full interview text).

Links:

Africa’s Belt of Misery: Religion and Climate Change Fuel Chaos in Sahel, on Spiegel Online International, by Horand Knaup, March 21, 2012;

How the German Economy Became a Model, on Spiegel Online International, by Thomas Schulz, March 21, 2012: It wasn’t so long ago that many viewed Germany’s economic model as outdated and the country as the “sick man of Europe.” These days, however, even the Americans have come to praise parts of it, though they still doubt whether they would be able – or willing – to adopt it wholesale …

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