In keeping with our conversation on grief, I am reposting an essay I wrote for the mother of Trayvon Martin. Trayvon was killed on February 26, 2012. This article was originally published at the Rhetoric, Race and Religion blog available here.
Trayvon Martin has now become part of the national discourse on race relations in the 21st century. As more and more facts about the circumstances of his death are slowly unraveled, we are encouraged at every turn not to forget his name. His death is particularly distressing because even in these early stages of investigation, it appears nothing he did warranted deadly force. And there is another name that we should not forget in the midst of this tragedy: Sybrina Fulton. She is Trayvon’s mother. Another Black mother feeling the ache of having her child violently stripped from her. The mother of Emmett Till. The mother of Yusuf Hawkins. The mother of Michael Griffin. The mother of Willie Turks. Now Sybrina Fulton stands among those mothers of sons, sons killed under unclear circumstances that smack of the volatile mixture of egregious intolerance and violent confrontation.
Although this essay does not intend to take anything away from the grief and anguish of his father, Tracy Martin, or his brothers, Trayvon’s tragic death got me to thinking about mothers and sons. Trayvon Martin’s death comes during a holy season, a time of personal reflection upon the impact of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. And yet even in the midst of Holy Week, there is the image of a mother grieving the violent loss of her son:
“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour, the disciple took her into his own home.” (John 19:26-27, NRSV)
These are Jesus’ last words to his mother before he breathed his last. I have often pondered the unspeakable anguish Mary endured that day, watching Jesus take lash after lash, punch after punch, kick after kick, and the awful sound of the hammer as he was nailed to the cross. What umimaginable horror it must have been to witness that level of brutality heaped upon your own son. Adjectives are inadequate to describe what it must have been like for Mary standing on a hill watching her son being tortured. Was it like the anguish our African foremothers felt, watching their children captured and chained and taken to places unknown? Was it like the anguish our grandmothers and great grandmothers experienced, when American terrorists burst into their homes, corrupting the very concept of civil liberties, as they kidnapped and lynched their sons? What is it like, to see with your own eyes, your son swinging from a tree? Or being nailed to one? Mary knows that pain.
Mary watched her son’s execution, an execution designed not to eliminate suffering but rather to maximize it. Death does not come quickly in crucifixion. Standing there at the cross, Mary watched as her son’s lifeforce was extinguished in the slowest, cruelest, most horrific way Rome could come up with. Found guilty of sedition, Jesus was executed by a dominant culture that was ethnically different from him.
As I struggle to imagine what was going through Mary’s mind as she wrestled with the realization that her son will soon be no more, it is just as discomforting to imagine what that “call” was like for Sybrina Fulton. That call that all parents dread. That call that informed her that her son was no more, and that the details surrounding his death were shrouded in mystery. Like Mary, all Sybrina Fulton knew for sure was that her son was given a death sentence, and there was nothing she could do to stop it. Mary received a small measure of peace that Sybrina Fulton did not: Sybrina Fulton was not afforded an opportunity to have a final moment with her son right before he breathed his last.
Jesus’ execution shows us that even in the midst of unspeakable pain and anguish, there is hope. I hurt for everyone who knew and loved Trayvon Martin. And I hope to one day live in a world where loving parents do not receive calls informing them that someone projected their own fears and insecurities upon their child…and their son or daughter is no more.