The split picture


At a few readings from the book I told this story. We were all going to the New Jersey Seaquarium, meeting on the Philly side and taking the ferry across the Delaware.  The boys were only about 8. As they walked toward me, Lamarr ahead of his brothers and parents, I noticed a little dip in his walk. Looked like one of his uncles. I felt an aversion stirring in me, and a little fear. Was he going to start having some attitude, talking the white man this and the white man that.  He looked older, scarier. My joy at seeing them and my unconditional love were sullied.

When he reached me, he said "Do you know how to skip? Watch, I'll teach you."  And he skipped along the walkway, so cute, young really for 8.

one of Lamarr's facebook photos
Recently he changed his facebook photo (they're 15 now) to a camcorder shot of him close to the computer screen looking up, the small bedroom behind him, a bit rough, the light poor, his gaze serious.  And the same thing happened to me. A sliver of me recoiled. With adolescence his nose has taken on a little character, widening and flaring, and his strong wide jaw can make him look much older and bigger than he is.

In my mind's eye the screen was split. One side held 15 year old Lamarr, the baby whose diapers I'd changed many times; who earned the nickname Wah because he cried so much; who sucked his thumb; who didn't like to fight though his dad taught them all to fight and his mom punished any one who left the other two in a fight; who liked to teach random grown-ups how to skip; who was of the three always the most helpful to and interested in adults; who I loved with all my heart.

The other side held a scary young black man who was mad at the world and meant to get even. In that dim light and odd angle he could pass for 20. In fact, he looked older, scarier and darker than Trayvon. Indeed, he is darker, they all are; few of their great grandmother's Cherokee features have been passed on to them.
Little matter, any black is very black in some places, many places; and very black = bad and scary, violent, assumed guilty.

Is Lamarr violent? More so than the average white 15 year old who grew up in urban America? He may be. He lives with a sense of being under attack, because he has been under attack. And this sense was passed to him from his parents and theirs, who were all under attack. His mom's mom has told me about "kill a nigger day" at her high school, in the late 70's. But the attack didn't always come directly from white people. There was just much more violence when and where the triplets' parents grew up, with little or no help from any of the authorities that intervene in white neighborhoods when children are in danger. Big Lamarr had to fight to and from school as a matter of course. He saw several deaths close hand by the age of ten (I re-tell one in the book).  He felt he had to raise his boys to be tough.

He started early. For a punishment he had them punch a punching bag for long stretches of time. Hard. They'd punch away as the tears streamed down. This at 3 or 4 years old.  He spoke roughly to them, teasing and taunting, insulting, toughening them up, he said, against the insults and humiliation that would come.  How could I say he should not?

I don't know if Trayvon was raised to be that tough, that ready to defend himself. I know when anyone is cornered they may feel they need a burst of aggression to quickly disarm their attacker. I believe Trayvon feared for his life. People say he contributed to his death. Perhaps he should have run. Probably he could have outrun George. But could he have outrun a bullet? We might wish he had tried first to talk, explain. But he knew he'd already been profiled and that his words would likely be taken as lies. A different young man might have been able to "shuck and jive" and humble his way out of it. Yes sir, no sir. We might wish he had done that. Maybe his parents wish it. I feel certain that Lamarr, the most ingratiating but also the most hot-tempered of the triplets, would not have deigned to talk his way out of the fact that he was walking home to his father's house from the convenience store.  He would have been confrontational. Damear might have run; he's very fast.  Mahad might have gotten the larger man into a headlock; he's an excellent wrestler.

Or they could as easily have died there on that sidewalk where Trayvon died. A victim of racial profiling, the stand your ground law, and a picture split down the middle: 17 year old innocent young man, a citizen with rights, on one side; 20-something thug who deserve what he gets on the other.

Looking at Lamarr's Facebook picture, I see first and mainly the Lamarr I love, but I do glimpse the stereotype too.  I was after all raised a white American in a racist time and place, and no amount of reading, thinking, praying and changing diapers completely erases that. It's a daily struggle to see clearly and the work of my life to live in a love that can counteract or even erase the racism.

Which side of the picture did the jury see? Were they able to see clearly, when I who cared for those boys when they all three of them weighed less than four pounds cannot consistently see clearly? I think they saw Trayvon through George's eyes, but could not see George through Trayvon's eyes.  If they had, George would be in prison now, and millions of African-American boys and those who love them would perhaps start to feel that maybe America is becoming a place where Black boys don't have to be raised to daily defend themselves from attack.