Sunday, September 15, 2013

Political Flesh V: Teaching Trayvon Martin

By Therí A. Pickens

This is part of a blog series related to Therí Pickens’s forthcoming book.

we got to carry each other now
either you are with life or against it
affirm life
affirm life
affirm life. (Suheir Hammad, “first writing since”)
In the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict, I found myself thinking about the significance of words and the fragility of the body. It could be a side effect of writing a book on the topic – you start to see your book everywhere – but now words feel so tangible. Anyone who doesn’t believe their power should truly think about what the two words “Not Guilty” just did to a nation.

Immediately after the verdict, I wrote a few words to friends over G-chat and made my way to bed. I was sodden with fatigue and my steps felt heavy. I lay there praying and quiet. I’m not sure when I fell asleep. Morning came.

With time, the words began to form in my throat, in my mind about the reason this trial’s verdict asphyxiated me. I’m still choking on those words as I type them now.

Acquitting Zimmerman illuminates that others still view the Black body as fungible. Others have articulated this point better than I can right now. Suffice it to say that people who’ve shot dogs and walls have gotten more jail time. Marissa Alexander. I speak your name.

This semester, I’m teaching Angelina Weld Grimké’s Rachel, a play about a young woman who goes mad with grief because she is afraid to have Black babies during a period of such extensive lynching. My students reckoned with the play well. They wrestled with the interplay of aesthetics and politics, noting that recitation of memory within a play reclaims the dignity lost during a lynching. They worked their way through understanding the repercussions of Rachel’s choice to not bear children. Some called her indecisive. Others called it selfish. Some called it brave. I pushed them to consider where they stood vis-à-vis the gendered mandate to bear children since that determined how they thought through her decision.

I deliberately brought up Trayvon Martin in this discussion because Rachel is now. There are many Rachels now. When I broached this topic, the class went somewhat silent. I’m not sure if they were dealing with their own grief, their own difficulty, or some significant degree of discomfort. To my mind, any of the three could function as productive intellectual spaces from which to understand the ramifications of the play in our contemporary moment. My pedagogy has to ask students to reckon with the way lynching parallels the legally sanctioned murder of Trayvon. Even if they disagree (and some may), it is important to note that people (particularly those for whom this is an embodied reality) currently experience the weeping that concludes the play.

I have no real answers about how to teach Trayvon Martin. I know another colleague who plans to bring it up in social psychology classes. I know a few others who began their semesters with it. Suffice it to say, we all find it urgent and timely, present not metaphorical, useful and practical because students have to be prepared for the world we currently inhabit.

Therí A. Pickens is an assistant professor of English at Bates College and a contributing writer for the Cultural Front.

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