On February 5th, 2022, Trayvon Martin would have been 27 years old. February 26th marks the 10th anniversary of his tragic and senseless murder in Sanford, Florida. It is hard to believe a whole decade has passed.
It is Black History Month in the U.S., and in a way, my awakening of an aspect of Black history certainly began with Trayvon: the massive systematic and traumatic setup for injustice, failure and all too often death faced by any dark-skinned male in this country.
I don’t mean to ignore women and girls by any means, but as any parent of children of color knows, boys and men are at particular risk. Young Trayvon was pursued and shot dead by “concerned” neighborhood watch representative George Zimmerman for the crime of “looking suspicious,” wearing a dark-colored hoodie, and looking around at the houses in the neighborhood as he walked by. He was 17.
Increasingly, I am compelled and sometimes gobsmacked by the inextricable entanglement between trauma and social justice. I have always been deeply driven and motivated by the urgency of both. Somehow, it hits me even deeper that, of course, parents who are traumatized by war, poverty, genocide, racism, drugs and sophisticated political and economic systems will fail to attend and may even re-enact their own trauma on subsequent generations. How could it be otherwise? It can sometimes seem too complex to know where to begin to devote one’s energies, like the hydra of San Francisco’s homeless problem. Too many monstrous heads! Which one to target, or target first?
Increasingly, I am compelled and sometimes gobsmacked by the inextricable entanglement between trauma and social justice. I have always been deeply driven and motivated by the urgency of both.
Since the nature of trauma, as many of us confusedly know, is remembering and forgetting, remembering and forgetting, I want to be sure to remember Trayvon, who fell in a long line of young Black men whose deaths punctuated the last decade of my life.
Next, I remember Michael Brown, gunned down in Ferguson, MO. It was 2014, just before my first visit to Saint Louis for a sex therapy teaching gig. Ferguson was just minutes away. Brown was 18.
Then, Eric Garner, whose infamous words “I can’t breathe” were on all the T-shirts some six years before George Floyd devastatingly gasped them again. Because feeling forgotten, unimportant and ignored is such a silent and insidious hallmark of neglect, I want to remember them all. And there are countless others whose names I don’t even know.
In Latin American revolutionary movements, I remember how fallen heroes were memorialized by the rallying call and response of their names followed by a chorus of “Presente!”
Trayvon Martin, Presente! Michael Brown, Presente! Eric Garner Presente! George Floyd… There are so many more.
Candidate of the People
Perhaps many of my readers are too young to remember much about Shirley Chisholm. The tiny dynamo of a woman with a huge bubble top hair-do to rival only my then Barbie doll was the first African American woman member of the United States Congress, where she represented New York’s 12th congressional district for seven terms from 1968-1973.
She was the first African American woman to seek the nomination and fight discrimination to run for the presidency in 1972. She set a dramatic precedent. She was renowned for exhibiting phenomenal “guts”, which was ever her aspiration. Setting an example for bold and defiant action, one of her many famous quotes was:
“I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and I am equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people…”
A role model for women and girls of any race, she was unstoppable. In the presidential race, she fought all manner of inequalities. Blocked from televised presidential debates, she was somehow allowed only one speech. But working within the bounds that she could muster, she left epoch-making tracks. When George Wallace survived a disabling assassination attempt, Chisholm surprised many, including Wallace himself, by visiting him in the hospital. She said to him, “What happened to you should not happen to anyone,” bringing him to tears.
Chisholm left us with a writer’s treasure trove of wonderful quotes, perhaps culminating with “I’d like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts. That’s how I’d like to be remembered.”
That she did! Shirley Chisholm, Presente!
One of the racist demons of my generation was Alabama governor George Wallace, an icon of segregation. He was famous and infamous for saying, “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
That was his mission.
Wallace ran for president in 1972, and during his campaign, an assassination attempt left him paralyzed from the waist down, as referenced above. Now 75, being riddled with pain and sentenced to living out his days in a wheelchair must have wrought some sort of unimaginable reckoning and remorseful change of heart. Wallace made several surprising appearances at churches and civil rights gatherings. Most notably, he approached Black community leader John Lewis.
Lewis was a devoted and dogged civil rights activist and leader, chair of the pioneering Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963 to 1966, and later serving in the US House of Representatives from 1987 until his death in 2020. We might all remember the massive outpouring of grief and esteem from far and wide when he died not that long ago.
Part of his remarkable legacy was his being sought after by iconic racists like former Ku Klux Klan member Elwin Wilson and the Alabama segregationist George Wallace who approached Lewis with apologies.
Apologising for heinous and destructive acts is a complex, challenging and relevant topic and is very important to me. Without repair, how do we change relationships and change the world? And in turn, how do we make whole victims and family members of the myriad of Trayvons, Michaels, Erics, Georges, and all the nameless ones, including my ancestors and probably yours – even many of ourselves? How do we begin to assess and achieve reparation, restitution and healing? These are big questions for the traumatized.
John Lewis left us with these words:
“When you can truly understand and feel, even as a person is cursing you to your face, even as he is spitting on you, or pushing a lit cigarette into your neck, or beating you with a truncheon – if you can understand and feel that your attacker is as much a victim as you are, that he is a victim of the forces that have shaped and fed his anger and fury, then you are well on your way to the nonviolent life.”
John Lewis. Presente!
Your Best Game
Several years ago, in observance of Black History Month, local treasure Jerry Rice appeared at an event at Macy’s in Downtown San Francisco. Jerry was the renowned, by then retired #80, Wide Receiver of the SF 49er’s football team. Although I am no fan of football and have literally never watched even part of a game in my entire life, I always loved Jerry. I always identified with his fierce commitment to work harder than anyone else and make his headway by sheer force of will. I can relate to that.
He always said, albeit with excessive humility, that it was not natural talent but rather grit that got him everywhere he got. I feel that way too. But Jerry is a brilliant athlete, and I wanted to see him. So I rounded up my most loved 49er fans: my husband, brother-in-law and nephew, and we all trooped down to Macy’s as early as possible to score a good seat.
Jerry grew up poor in the deep south, the son of a bricklayer. He started helping his father and catching bricks when he was five years old – no wonder he had the biggest hands I have ever seen!
The most memorable moment in his talk was when an 8-year-old boy stood up in the Q&A shyly asked a question. He said, “I don’t play football; I play soccer, but here is my question. I am the only non-white player on my team. I feel very self-conscious and left out. I often just feel like quitting because I feel so bad. Do you have any advice for me?” Jerry did not miss a beat. Obviously, this feeling was well known to him. He said, “Just play your very best game. Work hard, and show them what an asset you are to the team. Just do that, hold up your head and give it time.”
That is exactly what Willie Mays did when he first broke into virtually lily-white MLB. His book recounts how lonely and ashamed he felt in his early games where the whole team would be staying together in a nice hotel, and he would be quartered in a poor boarding house across town that accepted “coloreds.” But he persisted at playing his best game over and over, ultimately becoming a standout player and a well-loved team member and friend to many.
Viva Jerry Jerry Rice! And Willie Mays Presente!
Let’s celebrate Black History: Remember if we can, forgive if we can and play our best game. And as Shirley Chisholm said, “If they don’t give you a place at the table, bring a folding chair!”
Each time I write a blog, I always try to think of a song that I love that goes with what I’ve written. Today’s is You Can Get It If You Really Want by Jimmy Cliff.
My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.