What It Means To Be Black In America



Sometimes racism is just a low hum in the background, almost unnoticeable and easily ignored, other times racism is a loud, persistent tolling in your ear so powerful it vibrates your core, and makes it impossible to function. Whether the volume of racism is turned up or down, its song is always playing, reminding you that you are different and unloved. Throughout my entire life I have experienced racism, mostly in the form of microaggressions, like when I told this girl in my chemistry class my full racial identity and her response was “that makes sense because you’re too pretty to be just a black girl.” I’ve received dozens of backhanded compliments resembling that one and their painful memory won’t soon be forgotten. Being a racially ambiguous person I’ve experienced less racism than a black person with predominantly Afrocentric features would have, and yet I’ve still experienced far too much racism since no one should ever have to experience such a dreadful phenomenon. Racism is one of the few constants in my life because as long as I’m alive I will hear and feel its reverberations. It is a depressing truth of the life of mine and many others, but one I wasn’t always aware of.

I remember the first time I felt the pain of being a Black American. It was when I saw Trayvon Martin’s murder broadcasted all over the news. The circumstances of his death confused me and my mom explained to me he was killed because he was black and that America had no love for black people. I wasn’t even nine years old and could barely understand the concept of racism, but I cried for that boy who was taken too soon because of something as trivial as his race. In the months following, I waited for his justice. I had never liked nor watched the news because what third grader does, but for Trayvon I watched. I watched as his mom cried on national television, as they slandered his name and dehumanized him, as George Zimmerman’s lawyer defended his actions, for weeks I watched.  I naively trusted the criminal justice system to punish Trayvon’s killer and avenge his death. I anticipated justice for Trayvon, but received what most black people knew to expect, disappointment. George Zimmerman was found not guilty and Trayvon’s life was deemed worthless because he was black, and in America being black was reprehensible. I had expected a fair verdict from a tolerant and reasonable America and instead was spurned by a callous and unsympathetic America. Trayvon’s life was snuffed out, his future stolen, and his potential wasted. Maybe he’d have grown up and developed the cure for cancer or maybe he would’ve just lived a normal and decent life as was his prerogative except he wasn’t given the chance to because of his skin color. 

James Baldwin once said “The story of the Negro in America, is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.” I will never forget Trayvon not just because of the nature of his death, but because he is the reason my eyes were opened to the reality of the world we live in. It is because of him I hear the persistent, jarring notes of racism in my ear. At times I find myself desperately wishing he would have stayed inside that night or called someone to pick him up because had he acted differently maybe he could’ve given us both time. Maybe he could’ve given himself more time on this Earth and given me more time to bask in the joy that was my innocence before I had to suffer through a lifetime of the pain that is being different. I still remember nine days before my ninth birthday, I felt for the first time what it meant to be black in America and my outlook on life was forever changed.