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June 28, 2013

Cultural Grammar (and other Delights)


Trayvon Martin’s trial might be intriguing, fascinating cultural theater to some. To me, it is more akin to a cultural trauma: a continual reminder of how unsafe all those young black men that I love actually are as they move through the world — and how tenuous and torturous it would be to seek justice on their behalf. Troubled, though, by the negative characterizations of Trayvon Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel, after her first day of testimony, I tuned in yesterday in a show of sofa-based, sister-girl solidarity.

Immediately, I heard newscasters referring to her prior testimony, which I had watched on video, as combative and aggressive. And I felt my pressure start to rise.

These kinds of terms – combat, aggression, anger – stalk black women, especially black women who are dark-skinned and plus-sized like Rachel, at every turn seeking to discredit the validity of our experiences and render invisible our traumas. By painting Rachel Jeantel as the aggressor, as the one prone to telling lies and spreading untruths, it became easy for the white male defense attorney to treat this 19-year-old, working-class black girl, a witness to the murder of her friend, as hostile, as a threat, as the one who needed to be regulated and contained and put in her place.

I know these are just classic legal maneuvers of a good defense. Yet these maneuvers also provide an eerily perfect diagram of the cultural grammar that determines how black folks move through the world, always already cast as the aggressors, always necessarily on the defensive, all too often victimized, all too rarely vindicated.

No one knows this better than Trayvon Martin.

The thing about grammars, though, is that they rely on language, on a way of speaking and communicating, to give them power. And Rachel Jeantel has her own particular, idiosyncratic black girl idiom, a mashup of her Haitian and Dominican working-class background, her U.S. Southern upbringing, and the three languages – Hatian Kreyol (or Creole), Spanish and English — that she speaks.

The unique quality of her black vernacular speaking style became hypervisible against the backdrop of powerful white men fluently deploying corporate, proper English in ways that she could not do. The way they spoke to her was designed not only to discredit her, but to condescend to and humiliate her. She acknowledged this show of white male power by repeatedly punctuating her responses with a curt but loaded, “Yes, Sir.”

The only thing we can imagine that would be more tenuous and torturous than the preceding is the spectacle of Joan Walsh explaining how there's really nothing objectionable about human beings, judging other human beings solely on the basis of skin color. But just in case your absurdity meter isn't pegged yet, there's this delightful tidbit:

What we witnessed with Jeantel was a deliberate attempt by the defense to mis-hear and misunderstand her, to suggest, for instance, that statements like “I coulda hear Trayvon, Trayvon,” meant that, in fact, she did not hear Trayvon screaming for George Zimmerman to “get off, get off,” of him.

Still she maintained her composure and clarified, “That means I could hear Trayvon.”

Gayatri Spivak once famously asked, “Can the subaltern speak?” Forever, I have thought the question was wrong. The problem was not in her speaking, but in their hearing.


Posted by Cassandra at June 28, 2013 01:54 PM

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I've decided I'm not going to write about this case at the Hall.

The commentary on it is interesting, though, in terms of what it means to have 'a jury of peers' sit in judgment on a case. Much of the commentary has been to the effect that the attorneys involved, and presumably the mostly-white, female jury, simply lacks the background to understand the testimony (or Trayvon's own experience).

In other words, the objection is that the case isn't being tried by his peers. The objection really is that only someone of the right status and upbringing could judge what he did or what was done.

But of course, it's not Trayvon who is on trial. Insofar as this is a valid objection, then the jury should be made up of George Zimmerman's peers. He's the one who is being judged.

So the real objection goes beyond an assertion that 'a jury of peers' has to be of a certain status and upbringing. It's that only a jury of Trayvon's peers -- presumably young, poor blacks -- can justly judge George Zimmerman.

That's an interesting claim. It's built around the voice of a community that despairs at ever being heard or understood, and so I am somewhat sympathetic to them as I ought to be to anyone who despairs. But as much as I sympathize with their desire to be understood, I'm not sure such a system would be especially likely to produce the justice we hoped for when we adopted the idea of 'a jury of peers.' It's a system more likely to produce vengeance than justice.

Posted by: Grim at June 28, 2013 02:50 PM

"....more likely to produce vengeance than justice."


As our culture descends into tribalism, this will be the siren call.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at June 28, 2013 03:11 PM

... the real objection goes beyond an assertion that 'a jury of peers' has to be of a certain status and upbringing. It's that only a jury of Trayvon's peers -- presumably young, poor blacks -- can justly judge George Zimmerman.

It's funny to me that these people are asserting that only jurors of their own race can reach a just and fair verdict. But if one were to assert the very same principle in reverse - only white jurors can reach a fair verdict in a trial where a black man kills a white one - that would be wrong and racist.

If it's true that people of a given race will be unjust or unfair to those of any other race because they can't understand the baggage or mindset that goes with having a different skin color, then doesn't it logically follow that blacks can't fairly judge the guilt or innocence of a white defendant?

Posted by: Cass - Confirmation Bigot-in-Training at June 28, 2013 04:07 PM

"If it's true that people of a given race..."

Forgive me, but what other race is there other than human wrt people?

Posted by: DL Sly at June 28, 2013 04:19 PM

Forgive me, but what other race is there other than human wrt people?

Obviously you need remedial divisiveness lessons :p

Posted by: Cass - Confirmation Bigot-in-Training at June 28, 2013 04:36 PM

Yeah, I know. I've been told that I'm a reprobate, but I forgot to remember to look it up.
I blame Bush.

Posted by: DL Sly at June 28, 2013 04:55 PM

Doesn't everyone? :p

Posted by: Cass - Confirmation Bigot-in-Training at June 28, 2013 05:21 PM

Tell me I'm a reprobate?
Um, no, there's only been a handful of people brave enough for that....at least to my face.

Posted by: DL Sly at June 28, 2013 06:11 PM

I'm normally receptive to arguments that a woman's views and actions are discredited by calling her aggressive and combative in circumstances where a man would simply be seen as strong and assertive. In this case, though, I think the witness's real problem wasn't with her manner but with the gaping holes and contradictions in her testimony. She claims to have witnessed Zimmerman shooting Martin in the back, for instance, when the medical evidence clearly shows he was shot in the chest. If I were on the jury, I might conclude she was inclined to make things up, and if her personal style was out-of-control enough, it would confirm my impression.

Posted by: Texan99 at June 28, 2013 06:14 PM

Actually I thought the defense attorney approached it just right. He tried to pass the blame on to the prosecutor's office for conducting a coercive interview.

At any rate, as the testimony continues to diverge from the picture the media initially painted, we will be treated to more and more obscure explanations.

As to "cracker," my understanding is that the term evolved in the Florida cattle industry. Which is huge BTW. At any rate, Florida cowboys used whips to help move the cattle by cracking them above the cattle. Thus, the term cracker was originally slang for a Florida cowhand.

Posted by: Allen at June 28, 2013 06:52 PM

Posted by: Evil Twin at June 28, 2013 07:12 PM

My Grammars taught me grammar.

Posted by: spd rdr at July 1, 2013 10:22 AM

I focused on her answer to the question about the Letter. Evidently she wrote (or caused to be written) a letter to one of the principal's mothers. For some unknown reason, she dictated the letter to a friend, who wrote it out.

The defense asked her to identify the letter and read from it.

She could not. She said (in that maddeningly calm voice), "I can't read cursive". I suspect she can't read print, either, which might explain why she had to dictate it to a friend.

That's not the issue; it's just a little point that stood out for me.

Posted by: ZZMike at July 1, 2013 10:57 PM

If Noam Chomsky had a grave, would he spin in it?

ZZ, I caught the same thing you did; ignorance of the language she speaks. IOW, illiterate.

Posted by: Cricket at July 3, 2013 08:36 AM

Another note: the phrase "get off" can also be construed (in 21st Century American Gangsta) as "lets get it on", i.e.: a challenge to a fight. Issued by TM, this contradicts the assertion of her that he was not the aggressor.

Posted by: bud at July 3, 2013 02:34 PM