On Saturday Trayvon Martin received a posthumous baccalaureate degree in aeronautical science from Florida Memorial University. It’s a strange thing to think about. FMU announced the award via Facebook and said that the degree was to honor Martin’s desire to become a pilot before he was slain in 2012. Trayvon would have been 22 this year; a fact that I’d never thought to consider in the literal sense until now.
It’s very easy to think of his story, in a lot of ways, only as the first of many stories like it over the last few years. Stories the likes of which will resonate with people as the beginning of #BlackLivesMatter and a turning point in radical black activism. It’s hard to understate the role that the Zimmerman verdict played in fostering this ‘new’ movement. In a recent piece for the New Republic, Peniel E. Joseph, the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, noted the vital organizational differences between BLM and their predecessors.
“BLM has moved beyond many of the blind spots and shortcomings of its predecessors, embracing the full complexity of black identity and forging a movement that is far more inclusive and democratic than either the Panthers or civil rights activists ever envisioned. Many of its most active leaders are queer women and feminists. Its decentralized structure fosters participation and power sharing. It makes direct links between the struggles of black Americans and the marginalization and oppression of women, those in LGBTQ communities, and other people of color.” – Peniel E. Joseph for the New Republic.
Though the verdict served as BLM’s breath of life, what’s still so hard is to try and remember Trayvon Martin not only as the story behind a life that sparked a new wave of activist sentiment but as the story of a human being.
According to FMU’s communications director, Ceeon Smith, the degree was awarded this year to correlate with the fifth anniversary of Martin’s death. Had the 17-year-old survived his encounter with George Zimmerman and gone on to college, he might have chosen this HBCU and he probably would have graduated this spring. It was at FMU that Trayvon met alumnus, Barrington Irving (the first black person and Jamaican to make a solo flight around the world), and found the inspiration to attend aviation classes over the summer before his death. It’s also on the second floor of FMU’s library that the Trayvon Martin Foundation has found its home.
Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton, a creator of the foundation in her son’s name, is also an alumnus of the Florida HBCU. Alongside Trayvon’s father Tracy Martin, she accepted the degree on their son’s behalf. Accepting that honor, knowing that your child is gone and can’t even benefit from even a single thing associated with the degree is undoubtedly a matchless act of emotional significance for both of them.
Just as those who remember Trayvon fondly saw this story as positive, others who beat Trayvon’s reputation into the ground from day one were moved to do so again in light of the announcement of the posthumous degree. A fair amount of contempt spewed from the likes of, World Net Daily columnist, Jesse Lee Peterson. Peterson took to Twitter, and in response to FMU’s announcement, to put the onus of Martin’s death squarely on the shoulders of his parents.
By pasting Mr. Peterson’s tweet here it should be noted that I’m not singling out anyone who’s opinion is of any verifiable relevance. I tend to relegate Peterson’s rebuild-the-family by “Rebuilding the Man” concepts, into the Hotep pool of obscure and dumbfoundingly misogynistic ‘how to heal the black community’ nonsense. But I would be remiss to not single out this sentiment as age-old.
Martin’s family, as well as a nation of people, spent months listening to talking heads like Bill O’Reilly and Geraldo Rivera feign some kind of benevolence, while they tried to explain, explain, explain what exactly they think is wrong with “African Americans” and their speech, or their music, or their communities. As the Zimmerman verdict came down as non-guilty, millions of people looked at their TV’s in total shock while just a couple channels over you could probably catch Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter cheekily trading sentiments regarding what Coulter called a “pecking order based on race.”
If you supported George Zimmerman and this strange notion that shifting the blame within an infinite stream of anti-black character assassinations, should serve as a reasonable distraction from the fact that at the end of the day Trayvon Martin should be alive — then how do you not at least partially agree with Peterson, the hordes of racial violence apologists and people who think it’s time to ‘just let it go’? What’s funny is that Peterson remained completely silent regarding the murder of black teen Jordan Edwards last month. Doesn’t it strike you how the respectability politics in particular start to fade away when a kid is a straight A student, plays sports, and when the whole thing happens to be caught on camera? That is in no way belittling the circumstances of Edward’s death, but that silence reads like a resolve to only look at what’s obvious and never extend the courtesy of your full understanding of people who don’t fit the cliched mold of what it means to be “upstanding”. Five years after Martin’s death and several ‘movements’ later this is still the problem.
To drag Trayvon Martin’s name in the mud after all these years, with the same bland defamation, is cowardly and completely undermines the fact that black people who are slain by a racist social infrastructure in life, and by the media, and in death; don’t all have the same narrative driving them towards some near inevitable early-death-by-violence. What has to hurt the most is how even years after his death, Trayvon’s story and the people closest to him are still springboards for whatever political point someone wants to make (in a strange way I need to hold myself accountable for this as well). Now, so much time has gone by and it’s as if we’ve never stopped and processed what, for many of us, was our first large-scale encounter with that type of violence in this new visual age of relentless exposure. It was Martin, then Garner, then Brown, then Bland, then Rice, then McDonald, then Sterling, then Edwards, and then, and then, and then, and then…
It’s natural that I desire to use their first names in this moment, but like photos of Normandy Beach or the Holocaust, slowly the pain of remembering individual people forces us to lump them under an umbrella. In this case the BLM umbrella. What is nuance when their names just form this umbrella that we know can’t protect us from sideways rain? Every week another name is added, the umbrella gets heavier, and walking forward stays hard. Aren’t you just overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people here? All gone for what seems like the exact same reason of blackness? How does that happen?
FMU isn’t giving Trayvon that degree to make him a martyr. Trayvon Martin has been a martyr. The degree is a symbol of loss, a means of remembering his potential and how it was taken from the world for no real reason. It doesn’t matter what you think about hoodies or crime. Life either matters or it doesn’t and that degree they gave him is how they honor the person whose life and death showed to millions of us that his life really mattered. His story should continue to do so.