On Trayvon Martin and Our Fear of Smiling Black Men

After I finished cutting my hair yesterday, I spent a longer time than usual staring at myself in my bathroom mirror.

This wasn’t vanity at work here. I still had specks of my old hair splattered against my forehead, which was shiny because I just finished running warm clippers over my head on a day where the temperature was around 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

I was focused on trying to detach myself from the person I saw in the mirror because I wanted to see what other people may see when they see me walking down a street or on a platform waiting on the subway. I wanted to see the face my mom said others would see if I wore my hat cocked a certain way or played a certain type of music at a certain volume. I tried to take any trace of soul in my eyes and I kept my mouth closed, focused on not smiling.

I wanted to see the face of fear.

And I couldn’t. A straight face isn’t my default face. I like to smile and I do it more than I don’t.

When I look at pictures of Trayvon Martin, I see a boy who smiled when the camera was on him. If I had to write a story about Trayvon using those pictures alone, I would describe him as a happy child who didn’t need to be feared by anyone.

Then I would hand that story to people like George Zimmerman.

A lot of what I have read about George Zimmerman and the tragic not guilty verdict those six jurors came to last Saturday has been about hate. Zimmerman was driven by hate; those six women must hate black people; the criminal justice system hates black people too. Hate, hate, hate, hate, hate hate…

I’m not writing this to disagree with any of it. Our interpretations about this American tragedy are ours to have, but mine is slightly different. Hate isn’t why Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. Fear is why George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin.

George Zimmerman was afraid of Trayvon Martin because Trayvon Martin was black. George Zimmerman feared Trayvon Martin because black people adorned in something as simple as a hoodie and khakis and sneakers with a bag of candy in their hand look dangerous to people who are either not black themselves or isolate themselves from black people to the point where most of their exposure to them is via the media and entertainment.

George Zimmerman feared Trayvon Martin because he never saw one of the numerous pictures of the young black boy smiling.

There are laws in place to prevent hate crimes. As a matter of fact, the New York Times reported the Justice Department has re-opened an inquiry into whether or not Trayvon’s murder was a hate crime.

If you read that article you will notice a disturbing quote at the end (spoiler alert!): “There aren’t that many of these cases, and it is not because the government is not being vigilant,” said William R. Yeomans, a former chief of staff in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “It is very difficult to establish a defendant’s state of mind.”

Hate is a common emotion. Everyone hates someone. The vast majority of us don’t deal with that hatred by taking the lives of the person we hate or a person from the group of people we hate. We don’t go to such extremes because deep down inside we know hating someone isn’t a reason to kill them. Also because most of the people we hate are people we probably knew and liked at some point. The people or group of people we hate that we know nothing about, well, they’re not really worth the bullet or the effort to eliminate and they’re definitely not worth the time we would get in prison for acting on our hatred.

But the way people deal with fear is entirely different and transparent. If you look closely enough, you can sometimes see or smell fear on someone, and the way they deal with that fear, in places like the state of Florida, is legal, coded by the words “stand your ground.”

Hate is not why managers and salespeople people will follow you around in stores. Hate is not why some places only allow 5 percent black people into the club. Hate is not why I got stopped and frisked by a police officer in the park around the corner from my apartment one night.

The fear something bad is going to happen is what prompts those things.

Zimmerman created a mythology about Martin based on recent events in his neighborhood. He was, by all accounts, an overzealous, paranoid, neighborhood watch volunteer who thought he had a reason to protect his home. He bought a gun to ensure such safety.

At face value, these actions are taken by someone who is not afraid. But factor in all the 911 calls Zimmerman made over the years, and you see Zimmerman wasn’t driven by bravery. He was a neighborhood watchman because he was afraid. It’s sort of like the reason I try to swim. I don’t particularly like the water, but I’m afraid of drowning, therefore I attack a pool and swim any chance I get to make sure I don’t fall victim to the thing I fear.

I keep looking at two photos of Trayvon Martin in two different football uniforms. In one, he is wearing a huge smile on his face. In the other, he isn’t smiling, but you can just tell he’d much rather be showing his teeth.

I want people who aren’t black to try and see themselves in these pictures of Trayvon Martin. I certainly do, and it’s not because of his skin complexion. It’s because like me, he smiles more than he grills at a lens. A lot of people have no idea how counter-culture such a thing is.

When I was a child, I played one year of Pop Warner football for the Seaside Raiders. On the day we took our team picture, our black coach told our majority black team NOT to smile. A couple of my teammates looked at me and said, “Jozen, you better listen to coach.”

This had everything to do with the culture of our city and our team. We were the Seaside Raiders. We wore black and silver jerseys. Seaside was the black city in the county. Football is a sport driven by fear and going face to face against that fear. The entire point of not smiling in the team photo was less about looking like we weren’t afraid, and more about putting fear into others. When we would do tackle drills, anytime a player looked shook, the coach would make them go against a much bigger player. “We’re going to get that fear out of you,” the coach would say. In his eyes, the way you dealt with fear is you attacked it.

Zimmerman had the same philosophy.

George Zimmerman wasn’t a racist because he hated Trayvon Martin, he was a racist for fearing Trayvon Martin simply because he was black. In the coming days, weeks, and months, people will talk a lot about trying to erase the hate, but I want to try and figure out a way to erase the fear of others who don’t look like us, talk like us, or socialize with us.

I believe people are two things: Inherently good and inherently afraid of what they don’t know. The former makes it difficult for us to be the latter sometimes and that’s unfortunate.

I wish more people would open their eyes and face their fear with peace rather than aggression and violence. I wish George Zimmerman would have simply asked Trayvon Martin where he was going and remained in his car, instead of charging after him with a gun. But I wish most of all George Zimmerman wasn’t afraid of a boy who liked to smile. Trayvon Martin didn’t have to die. There was no reason to fear him.

Jozen Cummings is the creator of the blog Until I Get Married, where this essay was first published. He has written for numerous publications including, Grantland.com, Vibe Magazine, and Paper magazine. He is a native of Seaside, California and currently lives in Harlem. He can be reached at on Twitter @jozenc.

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