Author James Baldwin said: “It is not the black child’s language that is in question, it is not their language that is despised. It is their experience.”
This telling quotation about the racial divide in America is rotating around the cyberspace circuit in reaction to the crass criticism being hurled at Rachel Jeantel, the 19-year-old friend of Florida teen Trayvon Martin whose shooting death created a firestorm of racial discord. She spent two grueling days, sometimes visibly distraught, in the Seminole County Circuit Court testifying about that awful final telephone conversation with her childhood friend.
However, Jeantel was treated more like a murderous defendant than a grieving star witness during the wall-to-wall television coverage.
What was Jeantel’s horrific crime? Let’s see: She is “dark,” “ugly,” “sassy,” “fat,” and “stupid,” if the downright dirty remarks are to be believed. They shouldn’t.
Blacks and whites alike unnecessarily denigrated Jeantel, saying her language was grammatically incorrect; she mumbled unintelligible sentences; she showed a disrespectful attitude; she rolled her eyes and sighed heavily; she was just too big and black and “combative” to be trustworthy.
Worst of all: Jeantel admitted to having literacy difficulties and an inability to read cursive writing in a letter. At 19, she is still in high school.
Forget how she looks. Hear the words she speaks. Jeantel’s testimony speaks volumes about the disparity in educational resources. We all are responsible for this criminal slight and we should be charged to remedy it, parent or not.
With all the assaults we have witnessed in recent weeks on all fronts, African Americans particularly must rededicate themselves to making educational excellence and academic achievement a vital priority for the 21st century workforce.
As a college professor, I have taught students in various educational setting from remedial English classes at a for-profit business school to advanced journalism classes at a traditional university. Across the board, I recognize that most students have been taught to pass a standardized test, which is more of a political measure than an academic one. They are not being taught historic or cultural knowledge, communication skills, or even how to think critically.
For example, in my remedial English class filled with college freshmen I suspect with life experiences similar to Jeantel’s, I teach basic parts of speech. I spent one afternoon with a class teaching me the meaning of some of their slang words, such as “convo” for conversation and “ham down,” for telling someone off.
Who is on trial here in Florida besides Zimmerman? Surely, poor performing schools, too. Who should be indicted for their existence? We can point the finger of blame in so many directions. The fault does not lie solely with Jeantel, clearly a product of her socioeconomic environment.
The second-degree murder trial of George Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, who claims self-defense in the February 2011 shooting death of Martin, now provides a cauldron of commentaries on a host of social issues and inequities from the criminal justice system with unrepresentative jury selection, to race relations and racial epithets, to cultural differences and manipulative media images.
Jeantel’s consistent statements were that Martin told her he was being followed, yes, by a “creepy ass cracker,” and she “coulda’ hear Trayvon,” (as in “could hear”), being approach by someone, and Trayvon yelled, “get off, get off,” before the phone disconnected. Her testimony indeed contradicts Zimmerman’s defense.
Stupid? Stupid is not admitting, “I done told you, I don’t watch no news,” as Jeantel said. Grief-stricken, not stupid is saying “you have to understand, I’m the last person who spoke to him alive.”
Rather, stupid is opening a murder trial with a knock-knock joke, as Zimmerman attorney Don West did, and then allowing your daughter to post an Instagram picture of you and her sister smiling and eating ice cream cones with the message: “We beat stupidity celebration cones #zimmerman defense #dadkilledit.”
Haitian-born Jeantel, who speaks at least three languages was on point when she stated: “I don’t understand you; I do understand English,” in response to West’s badgering and transparent line of questioning in which he suggested that because English was not her first language, she had trouble understanding it.
Illiterate? At last check, more than 30 percent of District residents were functionally illiterate.
I often tell my students, being illiterate does not mean you are not intelligent; it means you cannot read and write and compute – yet. It means you have not had the opportunities to be informed or exposed to substantial educational or cultural experiences – yet. It means that if you want to change your lot in life, you have to find the resources to acquire the necessary skills to become as marketable as you are capable of being. And, more adults need to help Jeantel and others like her to achieve their educational quests.
Veteran journalist Adrienne Washington writes weekly for the AFRO about relevant issues in the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia. Send correspondence to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.