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USF faculty, students react to national story

TAMPA, Fla. -- Sitting in front of the University of South Florida’s Cooper Hall Thursday, a young Black woman dressed in a hoodie holds a checklist:

These items are followed by the statement, “Hope I don’t get shot.”

The killing of an unarmed teenage boy in Sanford, near Orlando, moved Crystal Wilson, a USF senior majoring in Africana Studies, to demonstrate her outrage.

“I had to do something,” she said. “I thought, even if I have to stand alone, I’m going to do something.”

Trayvon Martin, 17, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, 28, a neighborhood watch leader, as he passed through the subdivision on Feb. 26. Zimmerman said he acted in self-defense and was not arrested.

Wilson received a lot of encouraging support from people passing by and plans to organize a rally, possibly on Tuesday. She is working on the details which she will announce in the coming days.

The killing, which has enraged the nation, motivated Steve Maynor Jr., a master sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, to write a very thoughtful and moving blog post that echoed sentiments being expressed around the world. His piece, titled “Why Trayvon Martin’s Death Should Matter to You” details his feelings and includes some of what he has learned in life as well as what he has gained from courses taken in USF’s Department of Africana Studies. They are connected.

He asks, “How can I help someone understand how it feels when I walk into an elevator with a woman while wearing my Marine service uniform and instead of her saying “thank you for your service to our country,” she turns her head, moves closer to the door, and clutches her purse as if I was going to rob her? I must have looked suspicious to her because I am a scary looking, 5’11, 195 pound, bald, dark skinned, African American male.”

Maynor, who is an assistant marine officer instructor in USF’s NROTC unit, turned to a book from an Africana studies course for help: “Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida,” by Paul Ortiz.

“There were so many cases mentioned in “Emancipation Betrayed” that are eerily similar to this one,” he wrote and said later, “Every Africana studies class I’ve taken has had a tremendous impact on my life, but Dr. Duke’s Black Freedom Struggle class is the one that stands out the most in helping me deal with the death of Trayvon Martin.”

Both Maynor and Wilson have gained some understanding of the issues at work in this case from experts at USF.

Africana Studies Chair Cheryl Rodriguez and her colleague, Assistant Professor Eric Duke, cannot look at this case or their students’ experiences without seeing all of the connections to American history. When the story broke, each was instantly reminded of the long string of violent acts against African Americans.

“This event and those like it are grounded in our history,” Rodriguez said. “One of the first things that came into my mind was the history of lynching in this country which has been at the center of our history of domestic terrorism. Black people have lived with fear of this kind of violence in every part of this country and still do.

“The lynchings of the early 20th century were common ways of intimidating Black people and preventing them from participating in society. This incident bears too close a resemblance to what it was like for Black people to be attacked for being in the wrong place at the wrong time or having the wrong facial expressions or saying the wrong thing. Even when Black people achieve to the highest levels, they still have to deal with this threat of violence.”

That could explain the strong reaction to Martin’s death. There’s a petition that has grown to nearly 1.5 million names, countless news stories, editorials, demonstration and marches. Duke understands why.

“You only have to scratch the surface to see wounds have not healed,” he said. “African Americans still face the threat of violence every day, still remain ‘the other’ in the eyes of society, still are assumed to be less than, deserving less than. It’s obvious, anyone else in a hoodie would get the benefit of the doubt, but it’s assumed this young Black man is a threat.

Duke said this is “just one more example that highlights the ways in which Black life is devalued.” He said this is especially evident in some of the reactions to the killing. “There are those who try to minimize what happened. They say, ‘Maybe it was just a mistake,’ or they use the words ‘law and order’ to, in a sense, try to justify what happened, anything but admit the underlying meaning.”

Duke also said, “Every year we have at least one particularly heinous killing, showing that race is still an issue, giving lie to the exaggerated claims of this being a post-racial era. Historically speaking, this is a continuation of a long ongoing problem.”

Rodriguez asked, “What does ‘post racial’ actually mean anyway? Do we want to ignore people’s heritage or whitewash our history? In a lot of ways I almost feel insulted by that term. We’re not post racial anything. We’re in the thick of it.

“A lot of us have vivid memories of Jim Crow; we know what life was like and we’re not interested in reliving those days. Trayvon was doing just what my brother would have been doing at that age, being a teenager. I think about my nephews going about their lives. This story is heartbreaking. We see young people in hoodies all the time. It’s ridiculous how simply walking while Black and being young while Black could be so dangerous. This has to stop.”

Rodriguez sees yet another historical connection.

“When Obama was elected, I felt there might be an upsurge of bursts of violence and public expressions of hatred and we’re seeing it,” she said. “A lot of people are very angry about social conditions in general but the fact that we have a Black president has produced a level and quality of anger I find particularly alarming that manifests itself in the barely contained lack of respect, the unprecedented public outbursts, the vicious code words, all are just other forms of racial hatred. The rhetoric is not even subtle. People think nothing of saying hateful things about the president, his wife and family that would never even come into their heads otherwise and think it’s okay. If that isn’t racism, what is it?”

Another feature of the unfolding story of Martin’s death disturbs Duke, efforts to, what he describes as “de-racialize” the incident, “like when people bring up that the shooter is Hispanic, and then say that means it was not about race. Racism is not simply White versus Black. Even though race is a social construction, there is significant racism and racial tension focused against Black people by other groups, including Latinos.”

He hopes that people understand the national scope of these issues.

“It’s important for people to understand that racism is not -- and has never been -- confined to the South. This killing, and similar acts of racial violence throughout our nation’s history, shows these are national issues not just something that can be written off as occurring only in rural communities or isolated regions of the country. We find such issues from New York, to Chicago, to Los Angeles -- not just in stereotyped Southern settings. And even middle class Black people, who are deemed by some as more ‘respectable,’ can find themselves susceptible to this kind of situation, just like their working class counterparts.”

Can this situation change? Both Rodriguez and Duke say, yes, but it will take time and active effort -- and education.

“Every semester we teach a course on racism in America. It has changed students’ lives,” Rodriguez said. “They come face to face with the kinds of stereotypes about Black males as violent and savage, that goes all the way back to the whole rationalization and justification for keeping Black people in their place and preventing them from being successful.

“This is what we do because we’re brave enough to confront this uncomfortable subject, we’re willing to see it as our jobs to talk about these very difficult topics all year round, not just in February and not just when things like this happen.”

She said the department’s courses offer insight into the human experience and that there are “more similarities between groups than within groups. They learn to question stereotypes. They learn how groups are represented in the media, about Black people’s role in building the very foundation of this nation, things you would never know from how we are presented today. They learn how we were brought here unwillingly, we created cultures to sustain us, communities that protected us where we could build our own institutions even in the face of hostility and violence. Meeting us shatters everything they may believe about Black people.”

The nation hasn’t had that much time to adjust to societal changes, said Duke.

“The United States, and the colonies from which it came, has a much longer history of legalized discrimination than we do of freedom. People should understand the depths of racism in the U.S. We are only 50 years removed from the Civil Rights struggle, but before that, there was approximately 200 years of bondage and another 100 years of sanctioned inequality after the Civil War.”

Learning about race relations can help.

“My students are amazed at the gravity of the repeated episodes perpetrated against Black people throughout American history,” Duke said. “I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard them say, ‘I knew there were problems, but I had no idea it was that bad.’”

Rodriguez added, “The only way society will change is through knowledge and understanding. As all young people go out into the world -- the Black ones need to know what they are up against and the rest need to know what’s going on as well. The denial of racism can’t result in a productive plan to end it.

“The man who shot Trayvon has been reinforced by what is a societal problem and in the process a family has been destroyed, a life has been taken -- part of a bigger picture -- those of us who have lived it, who are willing to write about it, talk about it, bring people together over this have to continue doing so because racism really is a life and death issue -- in situations like this and economically and socially as well.”

Duke said, “The key for making significant progress in eradicating racism is for Americans of all races to fully address ‘head on’ the history and continued reality of it. Progress cannot be made by wishing away the realities of race in the past and present.”


Filed under:Arts and Sciences Africana Studies    
Author: Barbara Melendez