Jun 27 2013

Rachel Jeantel: Through A Glass Darkly…


On February 26 2012, 19 year-old Rachel Jeantel was talking to a friend on the phone. He told her that he was being followed by a creepy man. A while later, she heard his phone drop and then a scuffle. She was cut off and tried to call him back. Two days later, she heard that her friend, 17 year-old Trayvon Martin had been shot and killed. Her voice was the last friendly one that he would hear.

Yesterday, I was listening to Rachel’s testimony at George Zimmerman’s trial. She was billed as the prosecution’s ‘star witness.’ Zimmerman is on trial for killing Martin; he says in self-defense. I was doing other work but I also had an eye on my Twitter feed. In the background, I could hear Rachel’s voice as she recounted her conversations with her friend on the last day of his life. I could hear her cadence (halting) and her tone (irritated). She spoke black english. The judge and the lawyers made it clear they wished that they had a foreign language translator on site.

I smiled a couple of times as she audibly sighed when questions that she didn’t appreciate were asked of her. I was smiling in recognition of the dozens of young women just like Rachel who I have known and worked with over the years. I switched tabs on my computer to actually watch her as she spoke. I saw a young, dark-skinned, thick, black woman fighting to hold it together. I heard her explain that she ‘was not an emotional person’ and that she lied about not attending Trayvon’s wake because she ‘didn’t want to see the body.’

I SAW her…

Rachel is an around-the-way girl. Her hair done. Big hoop earrings. ‘Attitude’ for miles. Awesome nails. She was doing her. I smiled because I loved Rachel’s bluntness and forthrightness. Her demeanor was unapologetic even while her voice was low. She seemed to be just who she wanted to be. She didn’t code-switch. I found her endearing, compelling and brave.

I FEARED for her…

My opinion and assessment of Rachel were sure to be in the minority. I knew. A few years ago, a study by MEE Productions about relationships and sexuality among black youth found that:

“Black females are dissed by almost everyone. Young African American females hold little status within their communities, reflected in the name-calling and devaluing of young girls.”

When I glanced over at my Twitter feed, I saw how Rachel Jeantel was being discussed. She was already on her way to becoming memefied. On social media, Rachel was called “ghetto.” Her intelligence was questioned. Some wondered if she had a “mental setback.” @DeanRains suggested: “If you’re questioning how important education is for your children, re-watch Rachel Jeantel on the stand from today. #ZimmermanTrial”

Predictably, the racists came out of the woodwork. @ThomasTRiddle wrote: “My favorite part of the Zimmerman trial? Watching Rachel Jeantel grab that fried chicken and run out without paying.” The sexists got in on the act. She was attacked for her “massive neck” and for being “fat.” She was called “ugly” and some nicknamed her Precious, a character from a book titled ‘Push’ written by Sapphire.

UGLY. FAT. UNEDUCATED. DUMB. MENTALLY CHALLENGED. HIGH. BLACK. GHETTO. DUMB AS ROCKS. EMBARRASSING. STUPID. BLACK. GHETTO. RUDE. UGLY. DUMB. GHETTO. BLACK. BLACK. BLACK…

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From what I could see, many of the people leveling insults at Rachel were black themselves. SO. MUCH. INTERNALIZED. OPPRESSION. We are all drinking the same water polluted by white supremacy and misogyny. It’s as if her critics were looking at her through a funhouse mirror that was distorting her image, turning her into a grotesque caricature.

There Rachel sat on display for all to see… Dozens of people in the courtroom staring and millions of eyes across the world on her. She looked nervous as she fidgeted in her seat. Her voice was low but one got the sense that it wasn’t always like that. She was on trial and she knew it. She donned her coat of armor knowing that she was about to be savaged. A day earlier, she’d had a taste of coming attractions. Already, the media hounds had been turned loose.

The Smoking Gun informed its readers that Rachel’s Twitter page had been scrubbed:

As TSG reported yesterday, Jeantel, pictured above, maintains a Twitter account (@MsRachel_94) to which she has made more than 200 posts over the past five months. Many of the teenager’s tweets referred to drinking, smoking, and getting high. She also made references to Martin’s death, referred to acquaintances as “bitch” and “nigga,” and wrote about having “jackass lawyers on my ass.”

She was on public display and on trial. She didn’t want to be part of this case, to be involved in the spectacle. She made this repeatedly clear through her demeanor and her testimony. She wanted to be anywhere other than on a witness stand being interrogated by attorneys (all of whom were older white men). Who could blame her? It appears that many could…

I instruct the young people with whom I work not to talk to police except to provide basic identifying information (name, age, address) when they are stopped. They already know that cops are not their friends. As I watched Rachel’s testimony, her face was replaced in my mind with those of the youth I know. I could imagine them on that stand, surly, impatient, monosyllabic… If you saw them in that situation and assumed that you knew anything about who they were at all, you would of course be wrong. Being a witness in a murder trial is not an every day occurrence. It isn’t routine and none of us would be ‘our real selves’ in Rachel’s shoes. We’d let pieces of our personalities shine through but these would only provide glimpses into the depths of who we are.

Some have sought to explain Rachel’s demeanor and her presentation through a lens of ‘trauma.’ With good intentions, they suggest that she was likely ‘traumatized’ at having to recount a painful incident. Yet honestly, if she was traumatized, I couldn’t detect it. I saw a young woman who was mourning a lost friend in her own way. I saw a resilient young woman who was doing her best under enormous pressure to give voice to the life of Trayvon Martin who she cared about. I saw a nervous, brave, and beautiful young woman trying her best to get over, to survive in a context where continual devaluation is the rent that black girls have to pay for living.

As Rachel sat in that witness stand, many of us acted as judge and jury. We convicted her for daring to appear in public as herself: a young black woman telling her truth. Her punishment was ridicule, verbal violence, and abuse. The irony of course is that Rachel Jeantel is guilty of nothing; we’re the ones causing harm oblivious to how we are actually reinforcing our own oppression. We reproduce the same oppressive power relations that trap us instead of radically altering them. In an attempt to devalue Rachel, we succeed in making ourselves small.