News & Politics

Made In Our America: Letter to Trayvon Martin

Reflections on a boy lost too young, and a culture that allowed it to happen.

April 2012

Dear Trayvon:

What do I say to you, man-child, or for you, that has not already been said? I’ve tried writing this letter to you several times, and several times the words would not come. There have been tears in their place, or immense anger, and a painfully heavy kind of sorrow. Or some debilitating element of fear, if I can be vulnerable and real with you. Fear that I might say the wrong thing, or somehow offend you, your family, or someone who may not agree with my views of our society.

But this is not a time to be afraid, Trayvon. We are past that now, and we know that being afraid to speak and do is the same as creating your own prison, and being stuck there forever. These times are demanding courage, vision, love, and the determination to make sure your death is not in vain. For in writing this letter to you I am also writing it to myself, to America, to all of us, and asking myself, all of us, our America, to be truthful, in a way we have not been previously, about who we are.

Your murder, Trayvon, is a national tragedy, and the entire world’s gaze is upon us with a mixture of empathy and disappointment. Empathy because any human being, regardless of her or his background, is going to feel the devastating loss of a life, even that of a stranger. Disappointment because we in America claim to be a democracy, one that sets the standard for other countries—a great nation where there is, allegedly, justice and equality for each and everyone—yet it took over six weeks for George Zimmerman to be arrested, and only because of loud and consistent public outcries.

Mr. Zimmerman may have been the man who pulled the trigger, but there are so many responsible for your life ending abruptly at the age of 17. You did not deserve to die that young, not like that, in the frightened and tormented darkness of that Sunday evening in late February.

Furthermore Trayvon, I need to state, without hesitation, to those who have been quick to say that folks like me are screaming racism for the heck of it, that I love people, no matter who they are, that I really do believe there is just one race, the human race, that we are, each of us, sisters and brothers in the human family. And I do not simply condemn racism. I also denounce sexism, classism, religious intolerance and disrespect, homophobia, a reckless disregard and bigotry toward persons with disabilities, and violence in any way—in short, every form of hatred and human-to-human madness one can name.

We cannot merely be opposed to wrong and injustice that is convenient for us. We must also be opposed to every single kind of wrong and injustice, even if it does not directly touch or affect our lives. Because, eventually, it will. And because we human beings are ultimately connected, whether we want to accept that truth or not.

Due to my own challenges and changes, it took me many years to come to this conclusion, but after many conversations with my God, countless spiritual and emotional journeys, and travels to and interactions with communities and individuals worlds apart from the experiences of black boys like you and me, I do believe there are things that bind us, regardless of skin color, culture, ethnicity, region or national boundaries. Like our faith in something greater than ourselves that creates and sustains us. Like our desire to be happy, to have a stable home, a family. Like our longing to have possibilities for ourselves, our loved ones, and for employment that is not merely to pay the bills or survive financially, but actually brings us pride and dignity.

I would like to believe, Trayvon, that somewhere in the isolation and confusion of George Zimmerman’s heart and mind, this man, born of a white father and a Latina mother, is not that different from you or me. Indeed, if America is to ever heal and grow from the centuries of violence, murder, mayhem, and ugly and utterly unnecessary divides passed from generation to generation, then, yes, we must learn to love and forgive, including those whose ignorance and hatred is so deeply etched upon their souls that they would first think to aim a gun, fist, or insult at us rather than a kind or loving gesture.

So there is never sunshine, or a rainbow, until after the storm has passed. The storm America has been avoiding for so long is a very real and necessary conversation on race and racism. For racism is the greatest cancer in our nation’s skin, and it is as rooted in the American psyche as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the civil rights movement.

Anyone who suggests otherwise, Trayvon, does not know the America we know. They claim to be patriots, claim to represent the best of what America is or can be, yet they simultaneously harass people like me in email and on Facebook and Twitter with the same kind of racist language that was thrown at our ancestors as they were marching and demanding the basic freedoms of citizenship and the right to vote in the 1950s and 1960s. In America racism is about power, it is about privilege, and it is about image and perception.

That means at the end of the day it ultimately don’t mean a thing if George Zimmerman is white, black, Latino or a combination of all three. God knows I have witnessed my share of black police officers since I was your age, Trayvon, who methodically brutalized young black males in America’s ghettoes, for no good reason, in broad daylight. Some black cops, like George Zimmerman, have internalized the racism, have come to believe what the dominant white culture (yes, those certain white males with power and privilege who control most of our images and perceptions) says about black males, dating back to the human raiding of Africa and slavery: That we are menaces to the American republic and, accordingly, must be contained and controlled, with the power of position, or with the power of guns and laws that always seem to adversely endanger black men and boys like you and I, Trayvon. 

So it was your race that mattered that night, not your hooded sweatshirt. It does not matter that there are some, reading this, who will dispute or denigrate my words, say I am harking back to a bygone era. I am talking to you, Trayvon, not to them, and I am speaking with people who know how to listen and laugh and love as you did. I am talking to those who would never insist that any people should simply erase the memory and pain of their history because they do not want to hear it any longer. Simply because their lack of humanity has led them to pretend things have changed so much that they can move on with business as usual, or as if none of it matters in 21st-century America.

Well, it does, Travyon. If it did not, then why are you dead? Trayvon, we will simply pray for folks like that and wish them well. Moreover, what does matter is the mentality of racism that was festering within Mr. Zimmerman, a mentality that taught him to view black males as suspicious, as criminals. Where Mr. Zimmerman received that education—his white father with his military and law resume, his mostly white neighborhood in Virginia, the school system, the mass media and pop culture machinery, his co-workers or employers through the years, that gated and mostly white community in Sanford, Florida—doesn’t matter. What matters is he got it just the way most Americans get our lessons about people who are different from us: in a way that elevates difference over similarity, that pushes fear and hate instead of respect and love, that opts for violence when nonviolence should always be the first and only weapon we ever use.

You knew none of this, Trayvon, as you were walking with a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea in your hands. But you were a walking dead man-child the moment George Zimmerman ignored the police dispatcher’s order not to pursue you. In that moment, Mr. Zimmerman had become your judge, your juror, and your executioner in a single bound of racist logic. Your life, gone. The final waves of magic of Barack Obama’s historic 2008 election, gone. Myths and lies that America had become a post-racial society, gone. Pretensions and denials that black people can live in gated suburban communities and not think about being black each minute of their existence, gone.

But this is not new, Trayvon. It really began when Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement were still alive. Not only are you the modern-day Emmett Till, but you are also the four little girls bombed to death in Alabama; the scores of black and white civil rights workers murdered for having the audacity to come together, for freedom, for democracy, for America. And you are a victim of the policies of President Ronald Reagan and the Reagan era, too, Trayvon.

I remember those times well. Mr. Reagan may have been the so-called great communicator and symbolic leader of America’s late-20th-century conservative movement, but it was in the 1980s that the seeds were sown for “taking back our country,” which manifest themselves today in the Tea Party, in anti-democracy voter identification laws snaking their way from state to state—one well-financed piece of legislation after another, in the nonstop attacks on the rights and bodies of women, and in the anti-immigration fanaticism masked as protecting our borders and our traditions.

Anyone who cannot see the connections between these multiple efforts, the energies channeled to divide and conquer, to pit Americans against each other, against ourselves and our own interests, Trayvon, can easily become George Zimmerman and patrol a neighborhood because they have been so contaminated with hate and rage that they do not realize they are no longer thinking for themselves.

And what you wanted was a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea and you got death instead.

This land is our land, Trayvon, from one Native American reservation to the next, from ghetto to ghetto, from ocean to ocean, from one long unemployment line or long gas line to the next. We have a black president in the White House and a black boy whose execution was so preposterous that even he, Barack Obama, finally had to admit that you could have been his son.

Yet the president’s slow response time, Trayvon, is a symptom of American racism. Black elected officials, more times than not, and particularly in these times, if they want to get re-elected, are generally not free to speak their minds on sensitive subjects like race, nor free to be the whole, well-rounded, and complex beings that God made them to be. So many, except the ones with guts of steel and more concern for truth than poll numbers and political careers, silence themselves or speak with forked tongues, stick their hands in their pockets, and strike race-neutral poses as often as possible. That, to me, is as demented as the behavior of George Zimmerman, or the Tea Party, or the remarkably offensive Republican primary comments of Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.

Equally demented, Trayvon, are some of the so-called progressives or liberals who do not get the position Barack Obama is in, how he really will never be, as president, the kind of candidate he was, because the office of the presidency is already very restrictive. Add the dynamic of Mr. Obama’s race, or biracialism, and you have a man who appears to some to have lost his swagger, to be, well, powerless to champion and deliver that hope and change so eloquently guaranteed what feels like an eternity ago.

Perhaps that is why America turns, again and again, to the ghost of Dr. King. Our collective soul is so repressed at times that a dead man has more vision and more answers than we do. That just should not be the case any longer, because Dr. King is never coming back, Trayvon. And neither are you, young man. But what is here, what Martin Luther King left, and what you’ve left, Trayvon Martin, is a call to action for our souls, and for the soul of America. What connects you to Dr. King is that he, and Ella Baker, and Fannie Lou Hamer, and Malcolm X and nameless or forgotten others, fought, sacrificed, died, Trayvon, so that my generation and your generation could move freely, anywhere in America. Yet 44 years since MLK was shot on that Memphis motel balcony the way you were shot in that Florida gated community, we know that is not the case.

Further irony, Trayvon, is that if you were in a ghetto environment your fear would not have been a George Zimmerman but someone of your own race. Yes, internalized racism and black self-hatred are real, and we should be as angry about that as we are about what George Zimmerman did to you. There is no room in the process called soul searching for selective outrage. But any society that is forever chasing its tail instead of mustering the courage to stand still and look itself in the mirror will do exactly that. For sure, I asked once in a poem “where does one run to when stuck in the promised land?” Well, the answer, Trayvon, is that we should not be running at all. We should be living, and loving each other and ourselves as if the future of the world depends on our commitment to such. Because it does, young man, it really does.

Finally, Trayvon, I need to leave you with something an older man said to me when I was but a few years older than you. That you are a prince. A prince because your tragic death has given many the chance to see light for the first time, to feel and be in a very different way. While some may criticize those who wear hoodies in your honor, I say at least they are doing something. My beef is with the ones who do nothing but talk, if they do that. We’ve got enough talkers and non-doers in our America, plenty of individuals who think of themselves and not others, ever. But your death will not be in vain, Trayvon, if we are able to gently nudge those types aside and make way for the folks who know we will not only get full justice for you, but who will take America forward, not back.

You, wherever you are today, do not be afraid ever again, of George Zimmerman, of the dark, of walking wherever you please, Trayvon. They can kill a man-child, a boy, in cold blood, they can leave him for dead, they can delay informing his parents, they can hope the sorry episode would disappear, but they cannot murder his spirit. And they will never be completely free if all of us are not completely free.





Kevin Powell is the author or editor of 10 previous books, and is also a poet, essayist, acclaimed activist and public speaker, and a columnist for His 12th book will be The Education of Kevin Powell, an autobiography of his childhood and young adult life, to be published by Atria Books/Simon & Schuster in Spring 2013. You can email him at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter: @kevin_powell.