by Doctor Science
"The past is never dead. It’s not even past." -- William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
Like almost everyone else, I've been following the Trayvon Martin case. If you've been under a cozy rock, here's a good summary from Think Progress, another from Mother Jones. Ta-Nehisi Coates' perspective is invaluable. I haven't felt I had much to add before now: I just noticed that the case is connected to one of my favorite books of last year.
In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson describes the world of Jim Crow and the Great Migration of black Americans to escape it in the still-bigoted North. One of the central characters of the book is George Swanson Starling, a citrus-picker living in Eustis, Florida.
And Eustis is only about 30 miles from Sanford, where Trayvon Martin was killed.
Wilkerson describes George Starling's life in Florida in the 30s and early 40s:
... breaking from protocol could get people like George killed. Under Jim Crow, only white people could sit in judgment of a colored person on trial. White hearsay had more weight than a colored eyewitness. Colored people had to put on a show of cheerful subservience and unquestioning obedience in the presence of white people or face the consequences of being out of line. If children didn't learn their place, they could get on the wrong side of a white person, and the parents could do nothing to save them. [p.50]
Florida was shut off from the rest of the world by its cypress woods and turpentine camps. It was another country, with its own laws and constitution. And all through the 1920s, when George was a toddler and then in grade school, the grown people hung their heads over the violence that descended over them and passed the stories among themselves and to the children when they got old enough to understand.
They talked about the white mob that burned down the colored section of Ocoee, over by Orlando, when a colored man tried to vote back in 1920, how the man was hanged from a tree and other colored people were burned to death and the remaining colored people packed up and never returned. [p.59]
George was seeing the world in a new light after being in Detroit. The three of them had gotten used to fair wages for their hard work up north and walked with their backs straight now. George, in particular, never had the constitution to act subservient, and his time up north, where colored people didn't have to step off the sidewalk, only made him more impatient with the role the southern caste system assigned him.George and two friends tried to organize their fellow workers in the orange groves for better and more honest wages. One day a man who worked for one of the white grove owners came to him.
He had gotten used to carrying himself in a different way, talking to white people as equals in Detroit. Now that he was back in Eustis, he made a point to do whatever he could to keep from addressing white people as "sir" or "ma'am". "They'd say, 'So and so and so, boy'" he said. I would never say 'Yes, sir' or 'No, sir.' I'd say, 'That's right.' 'Sure.' 'Certainly.'"
"What do you mean by *certainly*?" would come the indignant reply. "You don't know how to say, 'Yes, sir'?" [p.135]
The yard man said he heard mention of a cypress swamp eighteen miles out from town.That quote is from The Mind of the South by W.J. Cash, who then writes:
"They talking 'bout taking y'all out to Blackwater Creek", he said. "They talking 'bout giving y'all a necktie party. They gon' take y'all out there and hang y'all in one of them cypress trees."
Men had been hanged for far less than what George was orchestrating. And there would be no protecting him if he stayed. In Florida and in the rest of the Deep South, "the killing of a Negro by a white man ceased in practice even to call for legal inquiry," a white southerner observed in the early 1940s. [p.156-57]
But wherever and whenever the forms were still observed, the coroner or jury was all but sure to call it "self-defense" or "justifiable homicide", and to free the slayer with celerity.That is part of the history of "self-defense" killings in Florida, and part of the history behind the "Stand Your Ground" law. Markos pointed out on Twitter that "conservatives aren't arguing that Trayvon should've been packing" -- even though they'll always claim that any given shooting death could have been prevented if the victim had only been armed.
The Warm of Other Suns taught me a great deal about 20th-century experience of black Americans, things I didn't know or hadn't put together into a coherent picture. To understand what it's like for black people, especially black men, today, Ta-Nehisi Coates is enormously helpful. Via Tom Levenson I recently found Question Bridge: Black Males, which as Tom says is a way for us white folks to "eavesdrop" on black men talking to each other about what's important in their lives. Sometimes you've got to just listen to other people's stories.