On Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story & Memoirs on the Movement for Black Lives

I’ve been reading some of the beautiful and important memoirs of the Movement for Black Lives that are forthcoming from Black feminists like Barbara Ransby & Charlene Carruthers as well as screening Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin story, which begins airing tonight on the Paramount Network, since the end of June. I wrote about the docuseries, as well as the books, for the Village Voice:

“They say that time heals all wounds. It does not,” observes Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, in Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story. “Had the tragedy not been so public, I probably would have taken more time to grieve, but I wasn’t given that type of privilege.”

The six-part documentary series, produced by Jay-Z and the Cinemart, begins and ends as it should, with the murdered seventeen-year-old’s parents. Over the course of subsequent episodes, the audience hears a series of 911 calls from Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, the aspiring police officer who became neighborhood watch captain in his previously exclusive gated community in part to live out a racist vigilante fantasy.

Rest in Power establishes a pattern of behavior from Zimmerman: He calls the cops so frequently on Black children who moved to his neighborhood after the 2008 economic crisis that dispatchers know his voice and refer to him by his first name.  Yet, as the series documents, it still took more than forty days, not to mention the intervention of media-savvy civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, for Zimmerman to be arrested and charged with Martin’s fatal shooting, and to get the killing reported in context by the media.

Martin’s death was the first real major convergence of race and policing in President Barack Obama’s presidency after the euphoria of post-racial liberalism had worn off. In Rest in Power, we see Obama graying at a rapid pace, weary, saying that if he had a son, his son “would look like Trayvon.” He doubles down and says that, put another way, he could have been Trayvon Martin when he was younger. As author Mychal Denzel Smith puts it in an interview, it becomes clear that there will always be more Trayvon Martins than Barack Obamas.

Rest in Power captures this monumental moment in American resistance with moving detail, showing scenes from protests around the country. And forthcoming soon are some additional invaluable histories of this period that provide a broader picture of the modern articulation of Black protest and mobilization in response to racist and vigilante violence.

These books are particularly remarkable because all too often, the narratives of resistance that do exist are positioned as though cisgender heterosexual men have always been at the forefront. As these works demonstrate, Black women have been the unsung architects of many of these protest movements — and they have only recently started to get their due.

Indeed, as we see the signs of hate rising all around us today, it becomes clear that Black women tried to warn us. Khan-Cullors notes this in When They Call You a Terrorist, writing on how she and her co-founders of Black Lives Matter as a movement were nearly erased from early reporting: “Despite it being a part of the historical record that it is always women who do the work, even as men get the praise — it takes a long time for us to occur to most reporters in the mainstream. Living in patriarchy means that the default inclination is to center men and their voices, not women and their work.”

That is true both for how she situates the BLM founders in relation to Martin’s case and for how she writes about the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, after unarmed teen Michael Brown’s shooting by police officer Darren Wilson. In a chapter dedicated to activism in Ferguson, Ransby profiles Black feminist organizers, including Darnell Moore, Kayla Reed, Brittany Ferrell, Alexis Templeton, and Jamala Rogers.

“When I suggest that the movement is a Black feminist-led movement, I am not asserting that there was no opposition and contestation over leadership, or that everyone involved subscribed to feminist views,” Ransby writes. “Nevertheless, when we listen carefully, we realize that the most coherent, consistent, and resolute political voices to emerge over the years since 2012 have been Black feminist voices, or Black feminist-influenced voices.”

Summer Music & Magic

I’ve been more quiet than usual because I’ve been dusting off my photography/summer counselor skills at Jewish surf camp (!) [more on that later, obviously] interviewing my share of incredible writers for Kirkus Reviews, reading and watching and reporting all of kinds of other things for other stories, finishing up my work in progress draft, for which I am in the final stages (last push! OMG!) and trying to find the essence of this thing they call the “summer slow down” (Have you seen it? Is it really real?)

Anyway, when the rest of the world is back to school and on a more regular schedule, I suppose I will be, too. In the meantime, I wrote this piece about the dynamic poet JP Howard, a Harlem native in Brooklyn and fellow VONA/Voice Workshop alum for Literary Hub, which posted today. I also spent some time writing this other piece for Bitch Magazine about my favorite albums from 1998, which I can’t even believe was 20 years ago!

I hope you’re enjoying your summer. How are you spending it out there?

When your greatest shame is also what makes you free

The spring before I left the Bronx to go to boarding school, to accept a scholarship that would change the entire trajectory of my life, I had an abortion. I was 15.

I was raised a devout Catholic; I’ve always been a deeply spiritual person. But I also had been so desperately lonely for such a long time. My high school boyfriend was a dumb ass and so was I. But he was lonely, too, in a different way. Poverty, violence, rage: They make you want the instant gratification it seems that sex can provide when you’re young.

I got pregnant not long after my mother had a manic episode during which she threatened to kill me. I’d run away from home to my best friend’s apartment in the projects as a temporary solution, to gather my thoughts. That was the weekend, when I was 14, that I first had sex. Looking for safety, a home, somewhere, with someone.

I had been keeping a journal daily for at least six months up to that point. When I told social workers I’d applied to boarding school, that I didn’t want to go home because it wasn’t safe, but I just needed a few more months to figure something out, they told me I could go to a group home, but it was unlikely that I could go to boarding school from any group home.

Reluctantly, I returned home. When she tried to hit me again, I held her wrists. “The next time you hit me, I will hit you back.”

It was a small win compared to what came next, which was that she found my journal, which, because I was an idiot, detailed how ambivalent I was about a future I didn’t know I could believe in. On one hand, I believed that if I had a baby, my boyfriend would always have to love me, and it would mean on some level that at least two people — he and the child — would have to love me. Right?

On the other, I have never wanted to be a mother. I have seen what this world does to Black babies. I am named for one who was killed at 12. A day does not pass when one is not harassed, though these days, it feels lucky that they are not murdered.

My mother’s discovery of my journal triggered our visit to Planned Parenthood, where she recited her rosary, loudly, while we waited to see the doctor. This was, for the doctors, a red flag, that she would be so bold. They saw us separately — in retrospect, I don’t know if this was legal or not. Is it safe, they wondered, to tell her that you’re pregnant?

“Absolutely not,” I said, shaking my head.

When they called her in, they lied to her. I lied to her on the day that I went to have the abortion with one of my Catholic school classmates. I have never cried so much or so hard in my life as I did as I mourned my deepest shame.

By then, the packet of summer reading for my first year at the new elite school had arrived in the mail. I had stopped writing things down. I was going to read my way to my future.

Continue reading “When your greatest shame is also what makes you free”

On Black Independence & the Fourth of July


Black folks call Juneteenth the Black Fourth of July because it was the birth of our nation, a fact that King Beyoncé — the force of nature and Black woman genius I have admired as she has continued to evolve over the years — had to have known when her collaboration with Jay-Z, “Everything is Love” dropped just days before this celebration of Black freedom.

After scrambling for no good reason to get Tidal because it was quickly released on Apple Music (grrrrr) I wrote about it for Harper’s Bazaar, though because of all of the other things happening in the news cycle, the Juneteenth context fell away.

Juneteenth is the day the rest of American slaves in Texas learned about their freedom in Galveston, more than 2 years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, in 1865. When I was younger, I wondered why Southerners, and increasingly, others, would celebrate a late coming into one’s freedom.

As Black bodies — children included — are literally policed by white women and others whose fragility and backwards politics have become the presiding expression of patriotism as led by our president, this year, especially, it feels important to reiterate how important images and reminders of Black freedom are. It does not always feel true, because black people keep dying. We keep turning into hashtags. We continue to have to fight from being erased from stories about what America is, what it has been and what it will become.

Juneteenth, this year, reminded me that even liberation postponed is worthy of celebration. Even if America sometimes confuses me, feels hostile toward me and people who look like me, I never tire of the Fourth of July. The universal promise of independence and freedom is infectious. Even nightmarish people can’t snatch the dream of America from me — that you can shape a life in community, even if meritocracy is not the whole truth of how one can do that, always.

The Fourth of July is one of my favorite holidays even though I detest the heat of summer (I’m a winter baby, can’t help it.) Juneteenth, and what it must have meant for our ancestors, is quickly becoming another favorite. Because in times like these, it’s harder to take freedom for granted. It’s easy to see how one day the greedy, heartless power mongers might try to just snatch that from any of us.

Here’s some of what I wrote for Harper’s. If you have some time during what I hope will be a luxurious vacation or some slow down time, I hope you’ll have a read and tell me what you think. Happy Fourth of July!

In her biography of Sojourner Truth, Nell Painter writes about the slave mentality and how it didn’t occur in a vacuum:

“Its characteristics—a lack of self-confidence, personal autonomy; and independent thought; a sense of one’s own insignificance in comparison to the importance of others; a desire to please the powerful at any cost; and finally, a ferocious anger that is often turned inward but can surge into frightening outbursts—are precisely the rants of vulnerable people who have been battered.”

Everything Is Love celebrates the hard-won absence of these qualities 153 years after the Emancipation Proclamation declared all enslaved persons free. One way of gauging how free The Carters are on Everything is Love is comparing them to Painter’s definition.