Black Girl, Misunderstood


My Blackness is something I never forget. Although its relevance may vary depending on where I am, I am always aware of it. Whether I’m at work, taking part in a class discussion, or eating at a restaurant, I am reminded of it.  This is not to say that I am always on defense, or apprehensive of people of different races, only that I realize that as a Black woman, my life experiences are greatly affected by the color of my skin.

This week has proven to be one of those moments of heightened awareness for me; from the controversy of Paula Deen’s statements to the trial of George Zimmerman, my Blackness has never felt more real.  This week, I, like millions of other Americans, have watched the Zimmerman trial unfold.  One of the most fascinating and uncomfortable things I have ever witnessed, was the cross-examination of Miss Rachel Jeantel, the last person to speak to Trayvon Martin before Zimmerman shot and killed him.

The prosecutor’s star witness had known Trayvon since elementary school.  On the night of February 26, 2012, Jeantel spoke to Martin as he walked back to his, “Daddy’s fiancé’s house” after grabbing an Arizona and a bag of skittles from a nearby store.  She spoke softly, answering each question as best she could, reiterating when asked to speak up or move closer to the microphone.  At times she become frustrated, but who wouldn’t be?  Jeantel was the last person to speak to Trayvon Martin before he encountered the man who would take his life.  Who knows how close the two really were or where their relationship would be, if Trayvon were alive today? They had known each other for years but had just recently reconnected.

As Jeantel spoke in the courtroom, I could imagine the conversation that took place between she and Trayvon, in his last moments.  Trayvon talks casually to Rachel through his headset, while walking back to his father’s girlfriend’s house after a trip to the 7Eleven.  They talk about typical teenager stuff like the All-star game taking place that night while Rachel flat irons her hair in preparation for school the next day.

Don West, Zimmerman’s defense attorney questioned her about Trayvon’s use of the term, “creepy ass cracker,” when referring to Zimmerman.  Jeantel maintained that it wasn’t racial but simply a way to describe the man who was following him.  Of course, it was racial but Trayvon later used the term, “nigga” to describe Zimmerman.  [“This nigga is still following me!”] I wouldn’t argue that his use of the second derogatory term cancels out the first, but it shows how young people use these words as descriptors for all kinds of people, regardless of their ethnicity.

Hate pages have already started on Facebook for Rachel Jeantel, labeling her as “ghetto”, “racist,” and “ignorant.”  Jeantel is now nineteen years old and in the eleventh grade.  Dark-skinned, overweight, and wearing large hooped earrings, Jeantel fits the stereotype.

The nearly all white jury must have been confused to hear Jeantel justify Trayvon’s use of the word “nigga” to describe a man of Peruvian and European descent.  I’m sure they were mystified by her reasoning for not stepping forward immediately after his death, to identify herself as the last person to speak to Trayvon.  (She believed that his murderer had been identified so, “Case closed.”  Her reference to 48 Hours was also endearing and understandable. )

It is the defense’s job to intimidate her and try, they did.  Jeantel’s repeated use of the term, “Sir” was haughty, and defiant.  Both teams, to explain her incomprehensibility or her confusion over questions, constantly mentioned her Haitian ethnicity.  This was in spite of the fact that she is an American citizen who clearly knows English.  At one point she told Don West, “I don’t understand you, I do understand English."

I commend Rachel Jeantel for her courage to withstand hours of questioning while having her character and actions criticized on a national scale.  My greatest fear is that the jury will not see past her hard demeanor, and the defense’s portrayal of her.  She is just a scared Black girl, seeking justice for the Trayvons of America.