07/14/2013 05:10 pm ET Updated Sep 13, 2013

Stolen Life: On the Meanings of Trayvon Martin


He died with his eyes open. Clad with khaki-pants and a navy-blue hoodie, his final gesture was a stunned glance into the eyes of the thief who had stolen his life. When the oxygen left his body, his heart would remain on the grass.

This story, this drama, this scene: it is not new to us. We have seen it before: in the monstrous cheeks of Emmett Till, the bullet-soaked body of Amadou Diallo, the broken neck of Anthony Baez, the violated rectum of Abner Louima and the incapacitated vehicle of Sean Bell. The stories attached to these broken bodies occupy familiar spaces in the collective memory of Black America. The paralyzing sadness (and teetering rage) that now hangs in the air (in response to an all-white jury verdict) is also not new. It reminds us of the Scottsboro Boys verdict and the Rodney King verdict. It reminds us of the Sean Bell verdict and the Oscar Grant verdict. It feels like yesterday. It feels like tomorrow.

Indeed, Trayvon Martin reminds us of yesterday, a yesterday that -- like the ghost in Toni Morrison's Beloved -- keeps coming back. Thus, to be black in contemporary America is to wrestle with this history of cyclical mourning and cyclical anticipation. The racial pain of yesterday is never far enough behind us, while the redemptive promise of a better tomorrow always seems too far ahead of us.

The story of Trayvon Martin: his life, his death, and his trial (and surely he was on trial as much if not more than George Zimmerman) -- resonates with black America because it is laden with symbolic meanings. Indeed, Martin's body seems to signify something to us, it speaks to us and symbolizes a set of broader realities. There are three symbolic meanings attached to Martin's body which resonate with Black America.

For many, Martin's untimely death symbolizes the "stolen life" that black male youth too often find themselves subjected to. By "stolen life" (a phrase that I borrow from critic Fred Moten) I am referring to the ways that young black boys frequently find their lives ripped out of their hands unexpectedly -- whether it be as a causality of the prison industrial complex (and the social death that follows) or a literal corpse in the wake of violent crime. Thus, to be young and black in America is to be a constant candidate for catastrophe. As we mourn and remember Trayvon Martin, many of us are also mourning the loss of brothers, fathers and sons whose lives have been stolen from them and stolen from us.

For others, Martin's story provides a context for understanding the simmering rage that many black men feel towards law enforcement in particular and the legal system more generally. It is clear that justice has failed the Martin family on every structural level. Indeed, the Martin family is a victim of at least three systematic failures of justice. The initial failure took place in the moment that Trayvon Martin's heart was pierced by George Zimmerman's bullet. This failure was then bolstered by the failure of Florida law enforcement to arrest Zimmerman (thus setting the stage for the presumption that the loss of teenage black life is too tiny an offense to warrant legal consequence). Indeed, it is worth remembering that it was not until a full-fledged social movement had already been mounted -- on the web, in the streets and on television -- did the Sanford Police Department find it appropriate to take Zimmerman into custody. The final blow came in the form of the trial itself: a judge unwilling to permit race as an admissible area of consideration (or grant the state an opportunity to argue that Zimmerman had engaged in child-abuse); a prosecutorial team that seemed well-intentioned but entirely ill-prepared, and a jury utterly void of racial diversity. Taken together, all of these failures lead back to one staggering reality: for African Americans, the law is often a site of violence rather than a site of violence's retribution.

Lastly, Trayvon Martin's story symbolizes the continued catastrophe of race in the age of Obama: an age where claims of racial suffering have become more (rather than less) illegible in the eyes of the American public. What does it mean to live in a nation where a 51-year-old black Harvard Law graduate can make it to the White House, but an unarmed 17-year-old black teenager cannot make it home alive? What it means is that we are living in the age of farcical racial irony: glass ceilings are broken, but the faces at the bottom of the well remain the same. Thus, to be black in contemporary America is to wrestle with the profound absurdity of this newer form of Dubosian double consciousness.

The story of Trayvon Martin reminds us that in spite of the seductive rhetoric of post-racialism, America remains a blues nation with a blues people sitting at its center.