Saturday, March 24, 2012

That's someone's child

I’m an avid road cyclist, and my riding buddies fit the stereotype: tough, quiet, spandexed. Before Eliot was born, I liked to soften these guys up by telling them how excited I was about my imminent fatherhood. I remember one of them—one of our team’s tougher, quieter, more spandexed members—telling me that after having his first child he could no longer watch Law & Order or CSI, or any of those procedurals whose drama revolves around the killed and the killing, or the dead and the dying.

“That’s someone’s child,” he said. “I just can’t handle it anymore.”

It’s a simple sentiment, perhaps, but the force of its generalization still moves me. Even if I felt then that it was somewhat overstated, it feels considerably less so now that I’ve made the transition from expectant father to father. At the very least, it’s become far more difficult to handle stories about children dying—and almost impossible to hear about them being killed.

There’s nothing I can say about Trayvon Martin, or his case, that hasn’t already been said. Ta-Nehisi Coates and his Atlantic Monthly colleagues have been our best guides to his story's twists and turns. Bruce Reyes-Chow at Hyphen’s blog has even tried to make sense of the overlap of Asian American privilege and what he calls “white” privilege that he sees lurking beneath the “lack of privilege” that marked Trayvon as a body to be targeted, pursued and shot down. Numerous others have attempted to see themselves through the lens of Trayvon’s death, and to mourn the persistence of racism.

But the voices that have affected me the most aren’t the angry ones, or the historical ones, or the legal or political ones, though each of these have played a crucial part in how I’ve come to understand Trayvon’s death. The most affecting voices have been the ones that see their own children in Trayvon, or even their own hypothetical children. I’m not in the habit of being moved by the emotional ploys of politicians, but I really did believe in the pain Obama was trying to convey when he said that if he had had a son, he would have looked like Trayvon.

Trayvon’s death hurts in many ways, not least of them historically, so of course the old divisions have been busy policing the authenticity of pain and identification. Black commentators have criticized white commentators’ claims that Trayvon reminds them of their own children, and confessionals of white guilt have flooded the airwaves and blogosphere. These discussions certainly have their place and I think we owe it to Trayvon to think through them as carefully as possible, in all their uncomfortable complexity. But the reason I’m writing this post is not to add to any of that.

The reason is because… well, it’s because I thought I'd ask us to pause for a moment and look at Trayvon's face. I think most of us have already done this, but there's something important in that pause. There's a feeling I get that I think most of you get as well, and I'd venture to say it's the powerful feeling of the general and specific coinciding. He belongs to us—and that matters tremendously.

Just look at him.