I wish people would stop donning hoodies as a sign of protest. There was a time when I found this gesture meaningful in the way it symbolized the trivialities in American culture that can be used to justify racial terror against black people. We are in a different moment now and so we need a meaningful response beyond symbolism. The verdict favoring George Zimmerman requires an oppositional stance that uses symbolism to initiate material, concrete change. Wearing a hoodie to church or donning one to reflect your social media profile no longer counts as activism; again, we’re beyond that now. Wearing a hoodie can no longer count as this generations’ sit-in or freedom ride; it’s not enough.
Continuing to rock hoodies as protest reflects a very thin reading of American history. Trayvon Martin could have worn a military uniform with ribbons and medals all over it and George Zimmerman still would have killed him. Black men in military uniforms weren’t saved because of their attire after serving their country during World War II. Trayvon Martin could have worn the sharpest three-piece suit you’ve ever seen and George Zimmerman still would have killed him. Addie-Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley weren’t saved because of their genteel garments as they readied themselves for worship at their home church on September 15, 1963. Trayvon Martin could have worn anything and George Zimmerman still would have killed him. I don’t know what Yusef Hawkins was wearing, just like I don’t know what Amadou Diallo was wearing, but no matter their attire,white people killed both of them. As a student of American history, George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin because he understood that killing a black child wouldn’t cost him very much. Moreover, emphasizing Trayvon Martin’s choice of clothing suggests his complicity in Zimmerman’s crime. Trayvon Martin was in no way responsible for George Zimmerman’s actions.
If you are a black person in America, your choice of clothing will not save you from racial terrorism. This idea that putting on a lab coat, a judge’s robe, a top hat and tails, a priest’s collar, or a nun’s habit makes you safe defies American racial history. Armor for black folk in America involves literacy, not clothing receipts. Calls for literacy in this case means that black folk in America should know how to read their world as it is while still being aware of an ideal world. I read a very interesting story in Jonathan Rieder’s book The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Rieder offers this narrative in order to substantiate his claim that King authentically experienced fellowship with ministers outside the baptist faith; especially with those who could identify with black suffering and those who preached against injustice. Citing secondary sources as well as interviews he conducted with Rabbi Jacob Rothschild’s family, Rieder tells a story about an invitation King accepted on he and his wife’s behalf to attend dinner at the Rothschild’s home. Here’s the story:
The Kings arrived late, Janice Rothschild remembered. As far as the hosts were concerned, there was no need for explanation. Still, she continued, ‘Martin apologized anyhow and explained that they had been delayed trying to find our house.’ It seems the Kings were forced to knock on doors to get directions. ‘As Martin told us this, he quickly added, ‘But we were careful not to embarrass you with your neighbors. I let Coretta go to the door so they’d think we were just coming to serve a party.’ Janice added, ‘I still get a lump in my throat when I think of it. (281)
From there, Rieder moves on without explicating the Kings’ actions or Mrs. Rothschild’s lump. For me, this account provides great insight into King’s understanding of race in America. Though King accepted the Rothschild’s invitation, he did not interpret their offer as anything more than that. King did not assume that he and Mrs. King had suddenly been invited into a world of racial tolerance. Instead of discounting all that he knew and understood about race, King drew upon this knowledge in order to safely reach his goal of dining in the Rothschild’s home. Once there, King set out to allay Mrs. Rothschild’s fears that his actions would reflect badly upon her. Thus, King’s analysis of race helped to script or to craft the plot of his compassion. Given this interpretation, I’m not sure what to make of the lump in Mrs. Rothschild’s throat. Does it signal shame for what King understood about fears she thought were secret? Is it a sign of her witness to King’s goodness? Does it represent her desire to change the past so as to be as invested in King’s feelings as he was with hers?
King’s actions in this instance provide a model for confronting a truth about race that James Baldwin offered his nephew in 1963: “You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being.” Neither Baldwin nor King suggest using this reading of the world as the basis for a lesson plan designed to disprove widely held ideas about blackness. In King’s case, he uses what he understands about race to author a response that would allow him to achieve his goals. It would have been interesting for Rieder to have probed what those might have been. What did King find so worthwhile about accepting an invitation whose subtext demanded a deferential posture? Without knowing King’s goals beyond dining with the Rothschilds in their home and supporting the racial narrative they may well have been enacting, King’s actions suggest he was not diminished by presumptions regarding his identity. His grace and compassion exemplify such an insight. Rather than surrender the power to name himself, King pronounced that he held sole authority in this regard. Therefore, King’s authority is instructive because it teaches us that being free requires knowledge of the past and an effective strategy for using that knowledge to survive. Freedom requires conceptualizing new terms for defining worthwhile experiences and rejecting the ones coming from a culture that considers you worthless. Assuming the integrity of those terms has lethal consequences for black people in America. To that end, freedom depends on one’s ability to craft meaningful terms for living a good life that others are bound to respect. Freedom requires naming, not rocking a hoodie.