“Parents of children of color are struggling to process their own fears and cultivate meaningful conversations with their children about personal safety,” Melissa Harris-Perry wrote following the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. On that Saturday evening, as she discussed the outcome on national TV, she and her 11-year-old daughter Parker, watching her mother on TV from Chicago, exchanged a heartbreaking and affirming set of texts.
Katie Uyo and Keanine Griggs of New Jersey were another parent-and-child having difficult conversations last weekend. As someone who has lived in their house for the past eight years (Katie rents out her top floor) and as their friend, I witnessed some of their reactions to the Zimmerman trial and asked them to discuss their perspective and feelings about it. The verdict resonated with them, even though we live in a swiftly-gentrifying northeast town over a thousand miles away from Sanford, Florida.
Katie is something of an immigration success story: she moved to America from Nigeria in 1977 to attend college in Syracuse and after finishing graduate school on Long Island, she settled in Jersey City, New Jersey, eventually purchasing a home there. As a newly-minted accountant, she held Keanine in her arms when she signed the paperwork finalizing the three-story brick row house’s purchase.
Keanine, once a gawky little kid, is now an effervescent and personable teen who loves baseball and J. Cole and attends one of the top high schools in New Jersey.
I sat down at my kitchen table with Katie and Keanine to discuss the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. At 17, Keanine is the same age as Trayvon Martin, and like him, Keanine has parents who do not live in the same home. Keanine says that as a young African-American male, he has felt the weight of people’s prejudices. Similarly, Katie feels deeply for Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, and she expressed worry for her son–worry that city police could stop-and-frisk him for no reason on the way to his summer internship, worry that if he stays out past 10 p.m. on a Saturday someone might think him suspicious, worry that someone would want to hurt her son.
What follows below is an excerpt of our hour-long conversation.
Me: What message, if any, does the George Zimmerman verdict send to African-American teenagers?
Keanine: It does send a message. You always have to be careful of what you are doing and how you are perceived in the outside world. You have to be.
Me: Can you give me an example of what you mean?
Keanine: My friend was unloading his parents’ groceries, and it was 10 at night. The car was right outside the house. They are taking out the groceries, and a cop comes up. The cop sees them taking out the groceries and starts questioning them. He is just rude, and he questions them, just because it was late at night, they’re minorities and what are they doing in someone else’s car? My friend answers the questions and shows that he lives across the street, and from that day on, when I heard that, it was like you have to watch what you do because even if you’re doing something as simple as taking out groceries, they are watching you. Everybody’s watching you. You have to be cautious of what you do.
Me: You have felt that here in Jersey City?
Me: Do you feel that wearing a hoodie here would be dangerous?
Keanine: I don’t think wearing a hoodie is dangerous, but if you look at most movies or if you look at any TV show where someone is about to be robbed or killed, someone is either wearing all black, someone is wearing a hoodie…At night, you put the hoodie over your head and no one can see your face. When you see someone wearing a hoodie, you kind of want to cross to the other side of the street. If it’s raining, you put your hood on, but that makes it even more mysterious. Like, “Why aren’t you carrying an umbrella?” I don’t think wearing a hoodie is dangerous; I love hoodies.
Me: Do you think that the rules are different for African-American boys?
Keanine: Dave Chappelle said it best, and I know I’m quoting a comedian but in one of his stand-up routines he said that black people can’t do the same things white people do because every time they want to do something there’s a little black guy that jumps up and says ‘That’s five to 10. That’s 10 to 15. [Ed: years of prison time one could potentially serve.]’ I bring that up because we are more conscious of what the law is. We have to be more cautious. We live in a world where racism is more concealed.
Me: How would you describe yourself?
Keanine: Awesome. I’m a big ball of awesome. I’m a skinny athletic guy who can be loud, but at times I can be quiet. I’m interested in communications. I plan on going to school for journalism and minoring in accounting so I can make money when I graduate. If some school takes me.
Me: Did you talk about the verdict with Keanine?
Katie: I really did not get a chance to talk with Keanine, to find out what he feels about the whole thing. I was just grieving in my own way, and I cried and I cried. I cried a lot. I watched everything until 1 a.m. in the morning on Sunday. Even the following day, all I did was watch the whole thing.
Me: Do you think the jurors were able to see Trayvon as someone’s child? Or do you think they saw him as being a thug?
Katie: It was just one juror who came out and said something. She said three were leaning towards acquittal and three were moving towards finding him guilty. Those women. If you’re a mother, you have this feeling within you about your child. I’m sure some of them viewed him as somebody’s child. Some of them just viewed him as another black kid who is up to no good.
Me: Did this verdict make you worry for Keanine?
Katie: Of course!…I’m a mother. I still cry when I put myself in the place of Trayvon’s parents. I still cry. My heart bleeds for her, and I think that any mother, even the jurors, their heart bleeds for her. Even George Zimmerman’s mother, she’s a mother….Of course I worry about him. I try to guide him in the right way; I try to make sure whoever he is going out with, I know who he is going out with. I make it a point to know his friend’s families. If I don’t like any of the families, I will tell him this is not the right person for him to be hanging out with. You have to guide these kids, because you are the parent. I’m the mother. He’s not my friend; he’s my son, and it’s my job to parent him. I have to set limits as to what he can do and what he cannot do. He’s growing; he’s making up his mind. I worry so much about him. I worry about what he could experience. I worry that he is a young, African-American kid. He’s very naïve. He’s not street smart. I think he’s naïve because he’s been protected. He lives in a nice, safe neighborhood. Whenever he leaves the house and gets to where he’s going, he gives me a call. I make it a point to know what he’s wearing every day, and the reason why I make a point to know what my son is wearing is just in case something happens. Just in case something happens. I can describe my son because I know what he’s wearing.
Me: Does something like this make you look at this country differently?
Katie: America is a great country. This is the greatest country in the world. You would not have a lot of people coming here illegally to settle. It doesn’t make me think less of America. It is my home. I’ve seen a lot of injustice, but the greatest thing about this country is freedom. People can go out and protest this injustice.
Me: How would you describe your son to someone who has never met him?
Katie: He’s an awesome kid. He’s smart. He goes to a geeky school. The geeks rule the world. But he’s a cool kid.
Drew Katchen is a Web producer for “Morning Joe” and writer for msnbc.com. Katie Uyo has been his landlord for 8 years and lives above them in Jersey City, New Jersey.
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