By Peter Wells
Associate Conference Minister
6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you . . . .
“One of the burdens of being a black male is carrying the heavy weight of other people’s suspicions. One minute you’re going about your life, the next you could be pleading for it, if you’re lucky. And far too many aren’t. That’s why the Feb. 26 killing of Trayvon Martin has black parents around the country clutching their sons a little closer.” Jonathan Capehart
“When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids.” President Barack Obama
Like the President, when I think about Trayvon Martin I think about my sons. In particular I think about Matt, the younger of the two. One of the oft repeated facts about Trayvon Martin was that he was wearing a hoodie. In fact Mr. Zimmerman made note of that reality in his description to the police. My son, Matt, loved hoodies. In fact he collected them. A collection, I might add, that is now in our attic. He of course didn’t just collect hoodies, he wore them night and day. And here is the thing I have really been thinking about: I never once worried about Matt going out wearing his hoodie – hood up or down. I never once worried that he would be followed around in the 7-Eleven or the mall or the park. I never once worried that some gun toting vigilante might see him, suspect he was up to no good, and in the end, shoot him.
I worried a lot about both of my boys, but not in the ways that black parents have to worry about their sons. As a privileged white person in this society, I never had to have what Jonathan Capehart calls “the conversation” and others call “the talk”. I didn’t have to sit my boys down as Capehart’s parent did and say:
- “Don’t run in public.” Lest someone think you’re suspicious.
- “Don’t run while carrying anything in your hands.” Lest someone think you stole something.
- “Don’t talk back to the police.” Lest you give them a reason to take you to jail or worse.
Capehart says, “I was taught these things almost 20 years after Jim Crow by African Americans who experienced its soul-crushing force first hand. And this is 2012. So much has changed for the better since then. But then comes along a Trayvon Martin to remind us that the burden of suspicion is still ours to bear. And the cost for taking our lives might be none.”
Yes, things have changed for the better in many ways in this country since the days of Jim Crow and before. Here and there we as a society have been able to loosen the bonds of injustice. Here and there we have been able to undo the thongs of the yoke of racism. Here and there we have even broken the yoke. But what we haven’t done is remove the yoke of racism from amongst us. It is still an ever present reality. It weighs down our brothers and sisters and prevents any of us from being truly free. And if we ever want to see it removed, we need to be willing to persistently engage in a conversation about race. We need to have this conversation with ourselves - our families – our congregations – our friends and neighbors – our society – people of our own and other races and, yes, with young men and women who wear hoodies.
This conversation cannot begin or be of any real value unless we confess that the yoke of racism remains amongst us – its impact is a reality – and it can be lethal. I pray the time will come when it won’t be necessary for African American parents to have their “conversation.” I pray the time will come when people will cease to look through the lens of racism and no longer think a young man of color in a hoodie is suspicious looking. I pray the time will come when the fears of parents of children like Trayvon Martin are not realized. I pray the time will come when the yoke will be removed from among us. But the time I pray for will not come until we find the courage to face and talk about the true realities of the times we live in.
Peter Wells is the Associate Conference Minister serving churches and clergy in the Central and Hampshire Assocations and the Coordinator of Mission and Justice programs.