This Mourning

Mr. Martin

This Mourning

July 14, 2013  |  Culture, Family

My favorite author, James Baldwin, once wrote “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” Since I was in 10th grade, those words have been scribbled on a post-it note attached to the screen of every computer I’ve owned.

James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time is one of my all-time favorites.

James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time is one of my all-time favorites.

This morning, that rage is particularly intense. I have not been able to sleep since the NY Times news alerted my phone at 1:14 this morning – telling me that Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of Trayvon Martin.

I knew that this was going to happen. I know America. Worse still, I know how race and class work in this country, and I know that the young are continually the victims of our inability to act responsibly as citizens and as change agents. I don’t need to recount the facts of Trayvon’s death or of the case here. There are hundreds of media outlets already doing that today.

I mourn for his family – understanding that by doing so, I am mourning for black and brown families with sons all over this country. Zimmerman was not on trial this month. Black maleness was. It wasn’t alarming to watch the defense labor to paint a picture of the unarmed black teenager as a menace who deserved death at the hands of a man who was warned by the police not to pursue him in the first place. It was, however, alarming to see how easy that labor was. It did not take much to sell the jurors (and much of America) on the idea that black boys are dangerous enough to shoot on sight now.

I work with youth in over five major American cities regularly, and I see this when the students I send to read at Starbucks in Seattle are denied entry… or in DC when I lead students into bookstores and all eyes shift to us… or even in NYC at Columbia when I’m continually carded by campus security because I regularly show up an hour early to enter the building where I teach.

Though they should not be, theses things are excusable to me. I’ve gotten good at teaching my way out of the tens of daily micro-aggressions that come with living in brown skin. I’ve had to – not for me – but because I live much of my life in front of teenagers. It is essential for black boys to see black men deal, in productive ways, with America’s inability to see us as whole individuals. Beyond that, it is essential for all children to have adults that don’t just consider their humanity, but who understand how complicated that humanity can be.

Trayvon’s case was inexcusable, though, because the consequence was not limited access to coffee house couches for reading or watching Columbia security admit nine white women without ID only to have them scrutinize every square centimeter of my campus ID card. The consequence for Trayvon was death. The moment for justice was over once George Zimmerman decided to follow him.

School to Prison Pipeline

School to Prison Pipeline

But it is not to late for everyone else. Moving forward, Justice for Trayvon means doing right by EVERY young person – even when it is not convenient and especially when it is challenging. Justice is ensuring that black and brown youth have access to the same opportunities as their white counterparts. Justice is understanding that in America when some teachers say “special ed” or “behavior problem” or “he won’t listen to me” what they are really saying is that I’ve given up. It is realizing that students who carry this label when they turn 15 are almost twice as likely than their peers to end up in jail. Justice is knowing that there are more black people in prison this morning than there were in slavery in 1850. Justice, ultimately, is understanding that this is not an accident.

Our unwillingness to deal frankly with the re-segregation of our schools and with the soul-crushing effects of poverty have made it so.

I’m paraphrasing Mychal Denzel Smith when I say that I hope that my work here doesn’t make you think I’m just an angry black man. My goal is to make it undeniably clear that I’m an angry black man. Each morning my heart is in classrooms, but this morning it is in Florida. My heart is also with you. I’m hoping that you are angry. I’m hoping that your anger at this verdict does not relent when all the editorials have been written or when all the rallies have been held or when work starts again on Monday morning.

I’m hoping that your anger will inspire you to work – in some capacity – with young people that are not in your class or directly related to you by blood. We cannot do much (this week) to counter years of institutional racism, but we can raise children to navigate and topple those institutions that continue to render us invisible and inhuman.

— Corn



11 Comments


  1. Thank you for this piece, Cornelius. It is the first one to alleviate a little of the pressure on my heart. Ever since teaching on the Southside of Chicago, I have had a massive huge place in my heart for “angry Black” men — young and older ones too. The brilliance of such young men is exactly what fueled their righteous anger.

    • Cornelius Minor

      Celia, I am sure that you know that your influence is on much of the work that Kass & I do… We are lucky to have such mentors.

  2. Thank you for this. I have felt anger about this case far beyond what many of my counterparts feel is approriate and when looking to others writing to help process my own thoughts, feelings, a focus on details and symantics of the law/ case to muddle my understanding. This post has redirected the dialogue in my head, and hopefully soon I will be moved to a productive place, because of it.

  3. I am ashamed. I teach young black and brown boys and I am white and female. I am ashamed because I feel I can’t authentically bridge that gap.

    I am ashamed of the recent decisions of our judicial system: Trayvon Martin and Voting Rights Act. They are wrong, wrong, wrong.

    I am ashamed because I hear people in my community say things like “I’m not racist, but…”.

    But I am mostly ashamed because my 15-year old daughter (who has been in an ethnically mixed school from kindergarten) is afraid when she is the minority. I am ashamed and feel I’ve failed.

    Your post is spot on. You should be angry and I am ashamed. Obviously, I can’t change who I am on the outside, but I will not give up on trying to reach my students. I will not let my neighbors get away with saying hateful things. But mostly I will not let my daughter grow up with misguided fears and beliefs. Thank you for your post. It is a call to action.

    PS Those guards at Columbia are a pain. If it makes you feel any better, they hassled me too.

    • Cornelius Minor

      Beverly Daniel Tatum often says that, “Racism is a system of advantage based on race… all that is required to maintain it is business as usual.” It is encouraging to hear that you’ve started to work with your daughter to question the way things are! I’m excited to hear how things develop as the two of you continue to work together to act on those questions… I think lots about my own wife and daughter… I think you’ve inspired my next post. Stay tuned.

  4. THANK YOU for this. I’m neither black nor male, but I am angry. And this white girl is tired of people telling her how to feel, telling her to keep calm, telling her not to get emotionally involved! Thank you for validating that anger, and reminding us how to best channel it.

    I’ve had very similar conversations with my kids (I teach middle school ESL, mostly Latino students) when they encounter racism, and then get in trouble because they got into a fight over it. Or when they encounter racism, and are afraid to say anything about it. Before we go anywhere near problem-solving mode, I always start by assuring them, “It’s ok that you’re upset! You should be upset. It makes me upset! I’d be more worried if you weren’t upset…” If there’s one thing I feel like I generally do well as a teacher, it’s establish my classroom as a safe place to share honest experience and emotion. Hopefully, it’s a step towards enabling my students to “navigate and topple those institutions.”

    This is my first visit to your blog, but I’m pretty sure it won’t be my last. 🙂

    • Cornelius Minor

      Thanks for stopping in & reading! I like how you describe your classroom, and I’m sure that your students are lucky to have you… Please continue to share your ideas. I think all of us have a lot to learn from you!

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