Trayvon Martin was a boy not much different from me when I was a kid. But the challenges I face where much different. I’m not going to say being born without legs is better or worse than being a young black man. I’m sure the later is difficult in ways I can’t imagine, but I do know what it is like to be looked at differently. I know what it is like to have people expect you to be dumb or expect you to be poor, or expect you to not speak English because of the way I look or my family’s last name. It is challenges like this that have caused many people to be held back from their potential due to someone else’s preconceived notion of what they should or should not be allowed to do.
My father grew up in Puerto Rico and at age 10 his family moved to the Bronx, New York. There he first began to learn English and to this day carries a heavy accent that can be difficult to understand for native English speakers. He married my mother, a white girl from Virginia, and had two sons. We were mostly raised by my mother since my father was in the Marines and as a result I was never taught Spanish. I asked my father many years later why he didn’t teach us and he told me that he didn’t want me to suffer some of the pain and humiliation he went through as a native Spanish speaker.
Now I can’t argue with what he went through and I don’t know what 1960’s New York was like but I truly felt bad for my father in a way I never had before. My brother and I were basically raised as suburban white kids. We had the Military brat upbringing so we were a little more aware of the world then typical kids but we were still relatively ignorant to racism in our lives. After I heard that 25 years earlier my father was being mocked due to the way he talked it made me see, we as a country, have a long way to go.
The most prominent occurrence of feeling like I didn’t belong happened when I was in 4th grade. My friend and I were out behind the school playing on the play ground a little after 6 in the evening. We saw some younger kids that were about 6 or 7 years old walking by and my friend said, “Let’s jump out and scare them.” Sure it was silly but we were kids too and we figured it would give us a laugh. So we hid behind a wall near the building and jumped out and screamed when the kids were near us. Well, the two kids freaked. Not just in a normal fear of being surprised but in a fear for their lives. They saw me, a boy without legs, and they could not make sense of it. They actually thought I was a monster. They ran up the school steps to a locked door and they were basically cornered. My friend said, “Make some scary sounds.” So I did and it only made the kids begin to cry. They said, “Don’t eat us! Just let us go home.” I had never seen such fear from anyone in my life. These kids saw in me the embodiment of their worst nightmares. And we decided the joke had gone far enough and we told them it was late and they should go home.
I didn’t really think about that day until I was much older and it gave me a true sense of what the fear of the misunderstood can do. I shared the story with my father and he said, “Good thing they didn’t have a gun, they would have shot you.” And I suddenly understood the fear my father had been living with in his life.
The problem with the Trayvon Martin story isn’t the fact that a young boy was shot late at night. It happens far more times than we would like to believe. The problem is fear. As long as people are afraid of what they don’t understand they will use their ideas to fill in the story of the worst thing their imagination can conjure up. And these thoughts and ideas come from ignorance, they come from inexperience and they come from division created by people in the places they live and the company they keep. The man that shot Trayvon Martin wasn’t shooting him because he was a young black man. He shot him because he was afraid. He was told to protect his neighborhood from possible robberies and told himself what a robber would look like and when he found someone matching that idea in his head he thought he was doing the right thing to protect himself.
And that was the problem with this entire situation; the man was afraid of what he didn’t understand. If he had talked to the boy I’m sure the idea that this kids was a big bad criminal would have disappeared instantly. He would had figured out it was some kid making a late night run to the corner store for some candy. It was his preconceived notion that this kid didn’t belong in this neighborhood that turned this into a crime.
I was a kid once and I was in the wrong neighborhood a few times, but I didn’t need to be shot. Even if Trayvon was lost, or in a place he wasn’t supposed to be, it didn’t require a gun to get him to leave. All the man had to do was put down his fear and let go of his ideas and talk to the kid and it would have gotten the boy headed in the right direction.
I hope this death isn’t senseless. I hope it ends with some discussion about fear and race that don’t end in more bloodshed but end in more communication, more understanding and more compassion. This doesn’t have to be about race and our differences; it can be about how we all came together as one community to watch out for the fear of ignorance.
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