Friday, June 28 2013
Social Media Shows Love
for Rachel Jeantel
by Jamilah King
Something unexpected happened this week in George Zimmerman’s trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Rachel Jeantel, Martin’s friend who took the witness stand this week, became the center of mockery and criticism about her dark skin, her speech, and her weight. The gist of it is probably summed up best by Lolo Jones’ idiotic and uninformed tweet Thursday night:
Crunk Feminist Collective paid tribute to Jeantel’s “unbought and unbossed” posture on the stand by compiling a list of encouraging messages from supporters.
Messages of hope for the woman who somehow became the center of George Zimmerman’s murder trial.
Rachael Jeantel (via YouTube)
This week, Rachael Jeantel is my patron saint of Black girls. Usually I give that title to Kerry Washington for her Bronx-meets-Spence-meets-Hollywood swagger. Or Lolo Jones (who stupidly and confusingly did this to Jeantel) for her athleticism, faith, and “beat the odds” story trifecta. They represent so much to me, chiefly code-switching under pressure and blatant fabulousness. But I think Jeantel has earned the title this week.
In these seven days so much has bubbled up from the swamp of America’s race relations. In one corner, the SCOTUS essentially declares racism over by striking down part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They also handed out a Laodicean non-ruling on Affirmative Action. In the next, we have Paula Deen and her use of the N-word coupled with her alleged treating her employees like slaves while also imagining a blissful plantation wedding with Blacks serving in little white jackets—in my imagination, she’d unwittingly have recruited Nat Turner to serve the mini shrimp and grits canapés. And finally, we have the George Zimmerman trial, where Jeantel was on the witness stand.
Jeantel, who was on the other end of that call, was on the witness stand. Being the witness in a high profile case never looks easy, but in this instance seeing her hits close to home because the words being used against her are the very things I fear as a fellow Black girl.
It’s not just a fear; it’s more of a paranoia that jumps out unannounced to make me hyperaware of just being me. It’s the fear being accused of being surly, ghetto, angry, or having an attitude. Those words hurt and debase our experiences. They allow us to be written off as a neck rolling, finger popping, ’round-the-way caricature right next to the welfare queens, the Uncle Toms, and the mammies.
Seeing her on the stand reminds me of all time times I had to fight my way out an assumption.
Like when I first moved to New York and left my keys in my apartment after a day of Target shopping. So, there’s me on my stoop surrounded by bags of pillows and sheets, wearing some getup from Urban and probably one of these Longchamp totes everyone carries. I’m sure I looked suspicious. And I’m being serious. I actually went out of my way not to ask people to let me in, fearing some unforeseen outcome started by a misunderstanding. I called my roomies and waited. But then I got tired and reached for the door when someone breezed through. But what happened next was not breezy.
My friendly neighbor jerked the door from my hand and asked what I was doing. I slid my shades up and cheerily introduced myself as the new neighbor from apartment 63 and I reached out my hand to shake hers, but she wouldn’t take it. Fine, I thought, maybe that was naïve of me. I then shared that I was locked out and was waiting on my roomies to come back. She snarled back that burglars plagued the building and that I don’t have to get an attitude with her. I, shocked, squeaked out that I lived there and asked how I was “giving attitude” by stating that? I don’t think she liked that because then she, even more loudly, said that I needed to stop getting an attitude and that because I was getting an attitude, she wouldn’t let me in.
So there I was, a proposed burglar with an attitude on the verge of tears. A few minutes later an actually friendly neighbor let me inside and let me put my things in his apartment while I waited. I sat outside my door confused and retracing what I did wrong, wondering if I really needed an attitude check.
My attitude face.
A year later, I found myself at a gig where despite my cheery “good mornings” and “how are yous,” I heard rumblings of my being “the Black girl with the attitude.” I must note, I was not only the only Black girl, but also the only person of color, so I knew they were talking about me. Oddly, the folks saying this weren’t ever that nice to me, but in the moment I didn’t care about that, I cared about making them like me; I cared about not being the Black girl with the attitude. My solution was to be so nice it hurt. I sent links to one about his favorite band, I took lunch with the other and asked thoughtful questions about their stories, and through it all I never stopped smiling.
That didn’t matter though, everything I did was thought of as aggressive. Eventually they stopped gossiping about my “attitude” and said it directly to me when they were informing me of my uppityness. What did I do? I smiled and brought in candy for the candy dish, of course.
Both times, I was so neutered by the accusation of having an attitude or being Black and angry, as my human ability to emote was taken as opportunity for someone to put me in my place.
But in this moment, seeing Jeantel be herself while the Internet is filling up with articles about her skin color, size, dialect and socio-economic background and while also dealing with a defense that questions her ability to speak English is showing me someone who’s not folding. It’s showing me someone who is strong, and not in a “strong Black woman” frame, but in her ability to speak her truth from her hyper-examined perch — and I can only imagine what it’s like there.
And for that very reason, along with her laid bangs and tri-lingual tongue, I hereby name Rachel Jeantel as my new patron saint of Black girls.
A few thoughts on Trayvon Martin‘s friend Rachel Jaentel... The minute that sister took the stand, jokes were flying around twitter about her looks and her weight… People were going in and saying nasty jokes about how Trayvon went out with Precious etc etc…
I’m sure the sista has heard such cruel jokes in real life more than a few times.. I can only imagine what sort defensive postures she’s adopted over the years to rebuff such remarks.. maybe she’s over aggressive, maybe she’s shy and stays low-key, maybe she makes lots of jokes, maybe she drowns herself in drink and drugs..who knows?
Hearing that she wanted to stay hidden and out of the public light had me thinking that was because she didn’t want to get the public ridicule.. It’s the type of mean-spirited ridicule that many had levied on Olympic champ Gabby Douglass when she was competing, one could only imagine what this sister, Rachel would’ve been dealing with if she had made herself public long ago..
On top of this, we still have someone who was a good friend to Trayvon who was the last to talk to him who lost him violently..To my knowledge, there weren’t grief counselors who went to Trayvon’s school and made sure his friends could process this sudden loss..
Like so many of us who come from the community, we are expected to suck it up, not cry and see the violent passing of love ones as some sort of truth about how tough we are and how tough are respective hoods are.. We ain’t supposed to need counseling, therapy or any sort of comforting to help get our mind right..
So we have a 19-year-old girl, who is overweight, dark-skinned who is supposed to ‘have her mind right’ because those who were going in on her supposedly could’ve and would’ve if they were on the stand… Some the harshest judgement directed at Rachel were from so-called professional, academic types, the sophisticated folks who saw Rachel as more of an embarrassment vs someone who was good friend to Trayvon..She even had folks like Lolo Jones, the Olympic athlete who herself was ridiculed, weighing in and adding to the viciousness. She compared Rachel to the character Medea and has made no move to apologize even as she herself as recently as a week ago is still upset and battling with those in the media who said nasty things about her..
Instead of thinking of Trayvon and respecting the fact that this was his friend as overweight and as dark as she is, many were projecting their own insecurities and bias on him and her.. Again this all before she started to speak..
Now lets talk about being on the witness stand..Many who talked crazy and judged crazy have themselves never ever been on a witness stand.. Many have not been a reluctant witness.. I recall being on the stand several years ago for the defense and being questioned for two hours before the cross-examination started.. I was not spoken too or prepared by the lawyers as to what to expect.. I’m a public person, I think I’m fairly articulate.. I have education and I speak as journalist for living, so being before a crowd and answer questions off the cuff is second nature to me..
When you’re on the stand and the job of the lawyer cross-examining you is to discredit you, its one thing to know it in theory and intellectually, it’s a whole other ball game when it’s happening, especially if you never gone through it..I recall when on the stand, the prosecutor asked me a couple of questions and then out of left field he pulled up an article I had written and read a sentence which on its own made me sound crazy and foolish..
He set me up my asking if I wrote the article? I said yes, then he asked me if these were my words.. and read the quote.. I said yes and tried to explain and was immediately cut off.. In a harsher more stern tone of voice that made me feel like I was 6 years old, he repeated the question are these your word? Yes or No..
I tried to explain and was instructed by the judge to answer yeh or nay.. I answered slowly almost like Rachel.. ‘Yes I wrote those words’.. My mind-set was anger and wanting to let everyone know in the courtroom there was a larger context to what I was saying..
The prosecutor upon hearing my ‘Ye’s answer said to the court “this is the type of individual we are expected to believe, someone who thinks like this who will pen these words in an article…”
Next the prosecutor pulled up my MySpace page and read my status update.. All this caught me off guard.. I wasn’t on trial I was a witness for the defense.. and he read my status which was ‘NYPD are dipshits’. Again i was asked yes or no is this whats on my page..
I tried to explain, and was cut off which had me even more heated.. Then the prosecutor said something to the effect that my juvenile ramblings were not very becoming of someone of my stature and profession.. Officers of the law gave their life on 9-11 and are more professional than you..
I wasn’t asked a question, but I responded, very slow and deliberate with major attitude just like Rachel.. ‘I wrote that because the officers who you claim are professional shot Sean Bell 50 times and not one of those so-called professional officers apologized..”
The prosecutor without missing a beat said something to the effect that my ramblings had sullied my profession and he was glad I wasn’t covering a story he was involved in….then he dismissed me.. I started to answer back.. and was stopped by the judge..
With all that I know about media and public speaking experience, degrees etc..and the 20 + years in age I have over 19-year-old Rachel Jaentel, I let my emotions get the better of me.. especially when my words were twisted and ridiculed.. I was only on the stand for cross-examination for 20 minutes, not 5 hours like Rachel.. I wasn’t on TV and there weren’t newspapers around digging into my past or making fun of my looks..Nor was I traumatized because of losing a friend..
I was angry that they took my words out of context and was mad that they saw my MySpace status update and ran with that to try and discredit everything I said earlier during being questioned by the defense..
I share all this to remind folks, what seems easy and no big deal isn’t always the case.. All I had that day was my truth and I left feeling like I was the one on trial.. I’m sure Rachel felt that and whole lot more.. The closest thing I can think of that might make this experience a bit more relatable is when you get pulled over and have to deal with rude arrogant cop who treats like you like crap.. Some are able to bite their tongue and endure the humiliation, others lose patience and wind up arrested or even dead.
I think Rachael told the painful truth..and was made to feel like she was on trial in that court and still on trial in the court of public opinion.. Even the daughter of the defense lawyer was taking instagram pictures calling this sister stupid.. Rachel is seen as everything under the sun, but a good friend of Trayvon Martin who she lost to unwarranted violence..
That’s some food for thought…