Some Thoughts on the Trayvon Martin Verdict and Cory Monteith’s Death
I was and remain absolutely gutted by the not-guilty verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. Legal expert Andrew Cohen does a good job of explaining how the system allows such outcomes, and Ta-Nehisi Coates is right when he explains that “The killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman is not an error in programming. It is the correct result of forces we set in motion years ago and have done very little to arrest.” The death of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, the death of fourteen-year-old Damani Henard, the death of twenty-two-year-old Oscar Grant, the death of seventeen-year-old Jordan Davis, the death of thirteen-year-old Darius Simmons — these all reflect a society and a culture that have long demonized and dehumanized black people, warehoused many of them in conditions that breed despair, and then punished young black men for their own dehumanization. I cannot imagine what it was like to wake up the parent of a black boy on Sunday morning.
And that’s the thing: I really cannot imagine what it was like to wake up the parent of a black boy on Sunday morning. There is no way I will ever be able to feel that in my bones, never feel the resonance of history communal and personal, never know what it’s like to look at my beautiful boy and fear for his all-too American skin. I felt on Saturday night, as the news came out and the responses poured in, as if I were at a national wake, a national shiva call, that all I could do was bear witness and offer love. Mouth words that had no meaning and never could.
I suspect that Trayvon Martin would not want to be a symbol or have his name serve as a rallying cry. That he would rather fall in love, hang out with his friends, and eat those Skittles. But from this moment in American history, his death and his name will serve a national purpose, and if we work very hard, they will help us to perfect the union that failed him so badly. Trayvon’s death is bigger than him, because he is a portent of all that Andrew Cohen and Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about, and a symbol of that bone-deep fear that far too many of my fellow Americans feel when they hold their boys in their arms.
The Saturday death of Cory Monteith, who played Finn on Glee, is a tragedy of an entirely different nature. Without yet knowing what killed a thirty-one year old alone in a hotel room, the fact of Monteith’s addictions and repeated attempts at recovery suggest a powerful, and for me, agonizing picture. I’ve lost people, nearly lost people, and lived with people in the throes of addiction, and there is nothing glamorous or entertaining about it. Cory Monteith’s death was likely the end result of some pretty horrifying struggles, and given his efforts to fight his demons, his famously sweet nature, how much I’ve cared for the character he brought to life and who now dies with him, and the reactions of millions of people who loved Finn and Cory, too (many of them kids who he had inspired to seek a better reality for themselves) — his death saddens me deeply.
Some have complained about Americans paying more attention to Monteith’s death than to the Zimmerman verdict, often complaining in a way that paints Monteith as privileged and spoiled, as if it’s his fault that Americans pay more attention to their TV than they do to social justice. And sure: He was privileged, as a newly famous white man, and he was probably some kind of rich. He was well-known and well-loved. And none of that mattered in his final moments. If I’m right and the death was somehow addiction related, Cory Monteith’s final moments were not privileged. They were awful. My hope is that whatever it was, it induced sleep, and the end was painless. But the steps that brought him to that end — those were not happy steps.
It is possible to mourn Trayvon Martin and Cory Monteith at the same time. It is possible to look at both deaths as tragedies, and to hope that neither man died in vain — that we will wrench some new kind of justice from our justice system, that we will find better ways to reach people who are held in their pain and their addictions. That we will give our children, ourselves, and our nation new tools, tools that keep more people alive and genuinely healthy.
If you don’t like the way that some Americans — millions of whom felt they “knew” Cory Monteith, after years of hosting him in their living rooms — are more focused on the death of a rich, famous actor than they are on that of the young boy who was just walking home, take that up with America. Don’t badmouth a dead man for how badly he timed his terrible death.
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