Trayvon’s Sweatshirt

Yesterday my son, Marin, and I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I had wanted to visit the last time we were here, in 2016, but it had recently opened and tickets were not available. Once entering, we looked at the map and agreed the first place we wanted to go was the special exhibit on Reconstruction. Marin has been studying Reconstruction in his AP U.S. History class, and I had recently finished Eric Foner’s “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution.”

The whole exhibit was impressive and informative. Some parts of it were set up to illustrate the brokenness or incompleteness of reconstruction – doors of their hinges or windows half-boarded up. There we several life-sized videos of an actor as Frederick Douglass speaking words such as, “When you turned us loose, you gave us no acres: you turned us loose to the sky, to the storm, to the whirlwind, and, worst of all, you turned us loose of the wrath of our infuriated masters… The question now is, do you mean to make good to us the promises of your constitution?”

Interactive timelines made it possible to conceptualize the years of Reconstruction. Marin reminded me of the fateful Compromise of 1877 when northern Republicans agreed to remove federal troops from the south in return for southern Democrats not contesting the election of Rutherford B. Hayes and a promise not to ignite a second Civil War. This essentially ended Reconstruction because it allowed the Southern states to revert to their own laws rather than respect the federal laws. In other words, the country sold out its formerly enslaved people and thus began the Jim Crow era.

Most of the exhibit featured items I expected to see, but there was one item that caught me off guard. The last section of the exhibit featured legacies of Reconstruction, both constructive and destructive. There was the helmet that Bree Newsome wore when she scaled the flagpole at the South Carolina capital to remove the confederate flag. Fierce! But the item that affected me most deeply was Trayvon Martin’s hoodie sweatshirt. It was just a basic grey sweatshirt. His shoes were also there – red and white Nike’s – and his cell phone along with a bag of Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea. But the sweatshirt. Something any teen might wear. But this one had holes in it. Bullet holes with pen-ink circles around them. The rage and sadness I have felt for Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and others came back to me. It must have been because I was standing there with my 16 year-old son on a trip to visit colleges. Those boys would never go to college or pursue their dreams because they were murdered for being black.

In the last room before leaving the exhibit is a quote by Angela Davis: “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” To make good on promises. To let love flow. To act as if…

2 responses to “Trayvon’s Sweatshirt”

  1. Thank you, Ben, for sharing such a moving and powerful experience!


  2. I apologize for this long comment, but I’m moved to tears.

    Elijah McClain was murdered by Aurora police and paramedics for dancing his way home in a ski mask while it was cold. If you don’t have a teenager in Colorado, that may sound like unusual behavior. I assure you it is something my white son and friends would do all the time and never have to be worried about being murdered in their own neighborhood. Later, four officers were let go for taking mocking pictures at Elijah’s memorial. Can you even imagine if this was your son, this level of obscene inhumanity?

    His last words as recorded by body cams that the police claim fell off all of their bodies in an obvious effort to avoid any accountability:

    “I can’t breathe. I have my ID right here. My name is Elijah McClain. That’s my house. I was just going home. I’m an introvert. I’m just different. That’s all. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why are you attacking me? I don’t even kill flies! I don’t eat meat! But I don’t judge people, I don’t judge people who do eat meat. Forgive me. All I was trying to do was become better. I will do it. I will do anything. Sacrifice my identity, I’ll do it. You all are phenomenal. You are beautiful and I love you. Try to forgive me. I’m a mood Gemini. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Ow, that really hurt! You are all very strong. Teamwork makes the dream work. Oh, I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to do that. I just can’t breathe correctly.”

    When he said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to do that,” it was because the violence of the police caused him to vomit more than once.

    White privilege is often thought of in the abstract as economic privilege and socio-political structures that give some of us a head start generation after generation. That is correct; however, white privilege is also the right to dance your way home when you think no one is looking, to be different, to be a sweet oddball as his family described him and to watch your son grow up.

    On a much lighter aside, good luck to Marin with APUSH, we felt it was one of the hardest classes in our high school. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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