Sunday, July 7, 2013

I am Rachel Jeantal: Travyon’s Friend and a Talk on the Way to Heaven

By Riché Richardson

For this third blog post on the Trayvon Martin case, to follow up my two from last spring, I want to focus more on black female subjectivity through his friend Rachel Jeantal, to whom he was speaking on the phone before George Zimmerman took his life. Please be forewarned that this is a longer and more personal post than usual and is really more of an essay. By the end, I think readers will understand why. Like a lot of others, I have been concerned about the propaganda that has unfolded about her since her testimony at the Zimmerman trial, propaganda related to her body, voice, demeanor, language and nationalities. I had no problems at all following her verbal-and non-verbal-communication styles, and grasped her phrases like “coulda hear” that the defense seemed intent on distorting and misreading. I loved her interjections of statements such as “you can go,” and “are you listening,” which made me feel all the more that she is entirely sincere. Moreover, the questions raised related to her literacy obscure the chronic neglect in the educational system for black youth like her. The condescending and dismissive readings of her have been very unfair, especially when I think of how problematic and ridiculous it is to make judgments about whose testimonial voices have validity and who is “fit” to represent blackness. Rachel Jeantal, too, is American.

Why is the tendency to ignore the beauty, dignity and voice that she possesses, and to insistently script her in relation to the grotesque instead? Is making fun and joking the only way that some people can deal with the diverse array of black female bodies that might conceivably become legible in the media and attempt to claim voice? When Lolo Jones made fun of Ms. Jeantal and tried to construe her as a caricature by invoking Medea, the moment seemed to recast the interplay between Toni Morrison's characters Maureen Peal and Pecola Breedlove in The Bluest Eye, in which Maureen shouts at Pecola, “I am cute!” Ms. Jones seemed to have totally forgotten that article in the NYT last year where it seemed that her public image was being mocked, devalued and under assault, in a way that I found to be offensive and that was also deeply hurtful to see, especially as another black woman. That is the kind of thing that can happen in our hyper-visible media culture, no matter how one sounds or looks. When analyzing the politics surrounding Ms. Jeantal, a character like Sapphire’s Precious, who has been powerfully rendered on screen by the director Lee Daniels, may come to mind when thinking of the issues of literacy, the scrutiny before state power and certain body politics that have emerged, but even that narrative would fail to account for how utterly captivating, mesmerizing and engaging she was as a platonic friend to Trayvon, to the point that he called her and called her; the siren metaphor, in the sense embodied by Angelina Jolie, can only capture Rachel's beauty, attraction, power and distinctly alpha femininity in that sense. And once she offered her testimony, many people were utterly riveted, glued to their television screens, and as captivated by her as Trayvon was!

I feel that it is crucial not to lose sight of the tragedy that this young female high school student has endured, and the courage that she has shown in the face of it. I have also heard a lot of speculations about “the community” that Ms. Jeantal comes from and queries related to “who she is.” Some people are acting as if she comes from an entirely different species, and as if only the most standard and formal uses of English language are acceptable or admissible in public forums, which is ridiculous in a nation as diverse as the U.S. In the end, none of these factors should impact the public’s ability to relate to her testimony. I am astonished by raced and gendered perceptions suggesting that the jury will not like her and would be incapable of hearing and relating to her testimony. I do understand why an almost all-white and female jury could very well end up feeling that way. I can only speak for myself. As an adult black woman who was educated in private school, who grew up in federated clubs and organizations, who was a student leader, who came out as a debutante, who is a Delta, and who earned a Ph.D, I certainly do not feel that any differences are dramatic in a way that would make her too different and other for me to grapple with or to even talk to and comprehend.

As I continue this dialogue, I want to describe an experience that has helped me to understand and identify some with Rachel’s. I had a call before a friend went to heaven, just as Ms. Jeantal did. So I knew where she was coming from in describing all the complex feelings that she had in the aftermath of losing Trayvon, and recognize the sadness, pain and trauma that linger in her. Rachel Jeantal has been invisible, misunderstood and dismissed by some in the course of her testimony about Trayvon. The pain I was experiencing after losing a friend was entirely invisible, unrecognized, unseen and ignored in the context of the university.

On April 11, 2004, Easter Sunday night, a girl friend I had first seen when we were ten and our respective Girl Scout troops shared Trinity Lutheran School as a meeting place, with whom I ate lunch at the same table among our other girl friends every week day of high school for four years, and who had remained in Sacramento where she had been stationed in the military, called to wish me Happy Easter late that evening, around a quarter to nine. It was like her to reach out on holidays. Weeks earlier, I learned that she had even come downtown to visit me on Valentine’s Day back in February, but I had been away in Mississippi at a conference at the time. So the last time I saw her was one August evening in 2003. It was a Saturday evening on which I needed to stay in to do work when she called me about getting together and going to this new popular restaurant/lounge in the tourist area of Old Sacramento, and so she said she’d just come by to chat for a bit. She brought me a set of scented candles as a gift. I wasn’t dressed that evening to go anywhere, and I wasn’t in a mood to put on anything or even go anywhere, but she looked great all dressed up and had also gotten her hair done earlier that day. At one point during her visit, we caught the fireworks from the Sacramento River standing out on the balcony of my apartment, which was three blocks from the capitol. At one point, she asked me if I had a camera. When I said I did, she asked if I’d take her picture in this amazing animal print outfit she was wearing, so I did. All of the cheerleader in her came out in the dynamic pose she struck, with her arms stretched out as far as possible on either side, and a beautiful smile.

With busy schedules, we didn’t always talk very often, and sometimes weeks or months went by between conversations. I had stopped calling and allowed her to do the calling once she moved in with one of her church members months earlier, because I felt uncomfortable and somewhat awkward calling and asking to speak to her at someone else’s home. She may have also called me that Easter Sunday evening because she had seen (i.e. via caller ID) that I’d tried to get in touch with her that Friday afternoon after attending an exciting Stations of the Cross ceremony at the church at St. Francis Terrace in Sacramento, but hadn’t reached her. When I had called that afternoon, someone at the woman’s home where she was staying hung up in my face, which had seemed peculiar. I thought I had the right number written down, but suspected that it must have been wrong. The first thing I did when she called was to ask her if I indeed had the right number, and to read it to her, and she verified it as correct. Then, I asked her if she was still staying there alone, and she said, “No, the lady of the house is back, and her grandson is here.” She mentioned that they’d come from the East Coast two days earlier. I was actually relieved when she said she was no longer there alone, for she’d “house sat” for months for one of her church members far out in a suburb of Sacramento called Antelope, which I’d never been to. She had once invited me to attend a picnic out there for the Fourth of July, but I told her that it wasn’t right for her to take a friend to someone else’s home, and that I’d be all right spending it alone. I did high rise living downtown in Sacramento, and worked in Davis, so life for me basically revolved around commuting by bus back and forth to my job, and doing things in downtown and midtown, or antiquing and going to the mall and fabric stores now and then in Woodland. I’d seen the place on base she lived in when I moved from Davis to Sacramento and we reconnected in person. I had never met the woman she lived with, in spite of my open invitation to my friend to bring her downtown to my apartment sometime for a visit and for lunch if she liked. I wondered why this woman did not seem to be the least bit interested at all in meeting my friend’s friend, especially one who was a university professor and lived downtown. I was sure that my friend had told her all about me and mentioned my invitation. I even mentioned my puzzlement and disbelief over it to my mother when she visited me in California the week before (“I wonder why the woman she lives with is not interested in meeting me?” "That’s so odd."). The woman had lost a daughter our age, 32, the year before, and it was sad when my friend described what happened. At the same time, I had wondered to myself if she was emotionally ready to have another young woman around and so close to that age like my friend, and had inwardly wished that my friend lived somewhere else.

After my friend left the military, I saw the second of her two apartments, which she decorated with a beautiful pink satin bedding ensemble and a leopard sofa cover. Her large CD collection was also nice. She decided to leave the first one because of noisy neighbors who lived above her. It did not help that she was in the parking lot walking toward her car one day and a white woman at her complex just mumbled something and walked up to it and spat on it, which is infuriating whenever I think of it even now. She had left California for a while, but loved living there, and when she returned a few months later, she decided to live at the home of one of her church members and to take her time in settling down again. In that sense, she seemed to be doing everything right.

I was playing my Blind Boys of Alabama CD that Easter Sunday night when she called. We talked about a lot of things. I told her about the mass at St. Francis and the giant wooden cross passed throughout the audience. We talked a while about the recent film The Passion of the Christ, which both of us had seen. I told her that I was going on a trip to Philadelphia soon. “Oh, Philadelphia,” she said. I mentioned that I was preparing for a lecture on Frederick Douglass in my African American literature graduate seminar that Tuesday. She wanted to revisit a point that she said had come up in one of our prior conversations and overviewed aspects of the history of the Roman Empire and Constantine, which reflected her very profound knowledge about church history. She mentioned that one of her dreams was to go on a cruise, and that she’d treat me if I came as well, but I insisted on paying my own way if we went. At one point, I heard something in the background, like a voice, that got her attention; she asked me to hold on and stepped away to check on it, and then returned, but said nothing about what it was. Something stopped me from mentioning anything about the guy I was dating at the time, because for some reason, chatty “girl talk” just seemed out of place that evening, though I’d told her about him several months earlier, including that I was “falling in love,” which she enjoyed hearing after many failures to ever get me to talk about subjects like the kind of wedding I’d like someday. In a phone conversation one Friday evening a few years earlier, when we were in our late twenties, she had once described her fantasy to me of a wedding ceremony with the NBA player Chris Webber, which in retrospect, I am deeply thankful that she shared. She had so many dreams, including marriage and children, and wanted those things like a lot of young women. I had had my crush on him in the early 1990s, but she is, I’m sure, one of the sincerest and most devoted fans that he has ever had. Indeed, she once sent me a beautiful photo of herself posing with Chris Webber at the annual Dinner with the Kings, which she tried to talk me into attending, because she felt strongly that with my tall height, “You could really attract a player!” It was flattering and amusing to have a friend who believed in me that much, and who was always so supportive of all that I was doing in general. For example, when our spiritual mentor (to whom she first introduced me in 1993) asked me where I’d pledged Delta, she proudly recited all the information before I could even say anything. She is one of the best friends that I have ever had, and I cherish that she had even come to regard me as her “best friend.”

Once when we talked in the fall of 2003, she was also reading different books and excitedly told me about various titles she’d been reading, such as Michael Eric Dyson’s most recent book. My dream for her was to see her attend divinity school. She was one of my favorite people with whom to dialogue about spiritual matters. The most serious debate we ever had was one about whether a person could lose their salvation. As one of the best Christians I have ever known in my life, she was adamant that it was possible to be blotted out of the Lamb’s Book of Life. I argued that if that was the case, then Jesus died in vain. That outlook didn’t make sense to me. A few days later, I was surprised to get a letter in the mail from her outlining her perspective, a letter indicating that while she had taken mine into consideration, she could not agree with my argument. I mailed her a copy of Rev. Charles Stanley’s book Eternal Security: Can You Be Sure? When she finished it, she called me to tell me that she understood how sure and secure her Christian salvation is. She had first talked to me about her faith in tenth grade, a time when I had flipped over her belief that women could go to hell for even wearing pants. This moment in her walk, in her acceptance that there is absolutely no way that one can lose the gift of eternal life once one’s faith is professed, was also powerful to witness. And she had professed her faith and become a committed evangelist of it and was witnessing to her peers before most people in our generation were thinking seriously about those matters. She is one of the best and most devoted Christians I have ever met in my life.

I am not sure how long we talked that Easter night, but the Blind Boys CD played twice before we hung up. The next morning, I thought about what she’d said about the cruise, and all the work I needed to do, but decided that I’d make time anyway and go along with her since that was her dream and she seemed to be so excited about it. That Monday evening, I went see my tax preparer. I gave my lecture on Douglass that Tuesday as planned. I remember crossing Capitol Avenue that evening and thinking of things that I still needed to tell my friend, and things I’d forgotten to mention that Sunday. I felt comfortable with my work, and with my life, even happy and thankful for everything, including good friends.

When I got to my apartment, I had a message from our mutual spiritual mentor, who told me to call her. She asked me if I was sitting down, and then told me that my friend had been murdered. I was in disbelief, and told her that was not possible, that I’d talked to her two days ago, at Easter. She described what happened. I looked for any information I could find in the news and saw the brief story about a young woman being stabbed multiple times while taking a bath, and that a suspect was in custody. It was unthinkable and unbelievable.

There didn’t even seem to be a way to classify accurately what had happened. Domestic violence was not an adequate descriptor, in the sense that her life was taken by someone who was mentally ill, whom she did not know and had met just two days earlier. This man in his early twenties was a stranger to her. She'd had no idea that she was in the midst of a person who was unsafe to be around.

I attended her service and spoke during the reflections. The service was beautiful. She would have been deeply touched by how powerfully her home church community celebrated her life, and by the sermon. My remarks described her as a “Saint.” Just as girl friends seemed to, our spiritual mentor’s son and I seemed to have recognized the trace of what she must have experienced in her final moments, and standing there after the service, where we waited as the processional drove off to her burial, he said he wished he could “beat him up.” It struck me as a distinct and specific coping strategy for a guy, for it hit me that doing so had never once occurred to me as a woman over those days. That's not to say I didn't imagine it; I wished I'd been there instead. People tend to perceive me as a nice and sweet person, but she was definitely far sweeter, and didn’t seem to ever get angry at all, so I just wished it had been me instead of her he had come up on like that in that bathroom, like I wished I’d been the one in that parking lot that day. She just quietly wiped it off, but I might not have been able to turn the other cheek as quickly as she did in this situation, and may have even threatened to call the police on the woman, pointed out to her that she’d just left her DNA on my car and said that it could be used as evidence against her if I decided to press charges. When I heard about it, I definitely wished that woman had come up on the type who would have dealt with what she did in that “I KNOW you did NOT just SPIT on MY car!” way.

It was unbelievable that by the time I gave that Douglass lecture, my friend was gone. I was utterly traumatized. It hurt to pass the bench I’d been sitting on after I’d gotten my taxes prepared. To have the conversations play back in my mind, like my Monday morning thoughts about that cruise, or my thoughts as I crossed Capitol Avenue that Tuesday evening without a clue in the world about what had gone on. It pained me to pass the St. Francis apartment building I’d told her about and urged her to consider moving into, because it always made me wonder what could have been. The pain was there whenever I passed by any of the restaurants we’d ever gone to. A tub of water I once dreamed of also registered the trauma. It hurt to even hear Antelope mentioned on the news in traffic reports. The trauma was just that deep. I had no sense of where the area was, and how truly far out it was, until two years later, on a trip to a retreat with the university, when we passed through that area on the way out of the city. He had never been anything but kind to me, in spaces like the lobby and elevator, but I must admit that I felt relieved when I spotted some golf clubs over on the balcony of the African American guy in the apartment next door to me, in the weeks after I’d overheard him and his wife arguing one night. I was left almost shell-shocked, and there were certain words I could not stand to hear, as well as subjects I could not bear talking and hearing about. All I could say to myself was “I don’t know, I just don’t know.” I wondered for a whole summer “how could this have happened?”

Early in the new year, a male friend called me and I seemed so giddy that he asked, “What’s happened to you? Why are you so happy? Did you get a call from Harvard or something? I told him “No, it’s better than that.” I had been so lighthearted that spring and imagined that I had finally met “my Destiny.” The experience of losing my friend was as jarring and as shocking as standing at the end of the wedding aisle and having a shot fired right down the middle. To receive yet another sweet note, but to say that the plans are off for now, and to put life on hold. To not even be sure I wanted to live any more, to wish I, too, could die, and to at the same time feel absolutely terrified because of what had happened to my friend. A new novel by Thulani Davis describing a similar experience of losing a friend was a great comfort to me, as was the minister’s sermon “Watchman, What of the Night?” at church that summer.

Life for me was never the same again, and never will be again. That experience made it utterly impossible for me to ever trust life again. I totally lost my ability to trust most people, especially older black women I didn't know like the woman she had trusted and lived with, who was said to have run next door to call a relative (not even the police!) and left my friend in the house at the mercy of her mentally ill grandson. Every conference that I attended and every talk that I gave was a miracle during that time. Being alone in strange cities and even something as simple as stepping out into the hallway at a hotel alone made me uncomfortable. I never had to. My mother and college roommate from freshman year met me at conferences in Mississippi and Atlanta, respectively, and slept in the bed with me. The guy I was seeing took off his job to meet me in several cities for others that year. When I went down, stood and spoke with charisma, and in my typical style without notes and introduced a panel on civil rights photography at a major conference in 2004, only my mom and a top scholar/ mentor in the audience I’d told about what happened to my friend truly knew and understood what it took to do that in front of a huge audience and the intense pain I was still feeling as I spoke. Another close girl friend also told me about the loss of one of her former professors at the hands of a student she had mentored, who was infatuated with her, became enraged when he saw her at a Valentine’s party on campus with another man, stalked her home and decapitated her. Then had gone out and killed himself. That tragic story was also sobering and terrifying and underscored the lack of safety, even in university settings. My friend said that one does not know who students are all the time either, or what some could be capable of, and made me promise her that I would not ever have them over again to parties at my home, which she knew I sometimes hosted at the end of my graduate seminar. And I didn’t, not for another five years.

I have kept my filters tight and my circles very small since then, and am okay with that. Even now, I tend not to have social interactions with people I don’t know. It has been an uphill struggle to feel safe with black women who were not already friends, or who are not family, and for months, it took a long time for me to get beyond the image of a woman running out to save herself as my friend was brutally murdered by a grandson she brought there, and who had not even called the police, but called a relative. The police drove up, and the paper said that he was just standing out in the front yard holding a bloody knife. From the day I learned that, I have kept my distance, been entirely my own woman, and accepted that not every woman in this world can be my sister or my friend. I have definitely come a long way over these years, in terms of the healing process, in the sense of being able to be at least a bit more open now in ways that the thirty-three-year-old me was absolutely incapable of being after this tragedy happened, and that would have been absolutely out of the question for me. I insisted on having Thanksgiving dinner alone in 2004.

Only faith and prayers helped me through this very difficult period. God got me through it and also broke my bonds with certain people. You really learn who your friends are. I mean, if a person can hear that someone suffered a tragedy like this, and then not give them as much as a phone call to see how they are doing, then they are not much of a friend; there’s really not much to say for them anyway. “Great Is They Faithfulness” was the song He wrote on my heart. Indeed. “All I have needed thy hand hath provided.”

For several months, I got a few cards in the mail from people I didn’t know, and I appreciated how they reached out. I presumed they came from some of the members of my friend's church. One day when I went to my office, I found a message on the answering machine from one of our mutual old friends, and we talked. I paid no bills between April and June, but finally, realized that I’d have to pull it together or end up with my utilities turned off. It helped, too, and I was pulled back to reality, when a friend and reporter had left a message on my phone one day I got back from campus telling me that “It is time for us to talk about this.” She wanted to do a news feature story on my friend, and so I put her in touch with a member of my friend’s family and our spiritual mentor. (I shared some of my reflections on her in the foreword to the remarkable book by our mutual spiritual mentor entitled Come Inside: Discovering Your Purpose, which is available on In general, her story needs to be told and celebrated by the people who knew her and have a sense of what a special and remarkable person she was. Cheerleader. Class valedictorian. College graduate. Military career. Her beautiful laugh. Her laughter. Her beauty. Her profound and devoted Christian faith. She wrote a wonderful essay for an anthology that a friend and I were co-editing in the early 1990s. I still have a copy of it, and will be sure to post it at some point, which will be especially inspiring, I think, to all the people who knew her. I also posted that great picture on Facebook one day, because I know she would have wanted her old friends to see it.

It hurt so deeply that the wonderful and well-meaning news story about my friend by this outstanding reporter, that included interviews with some of her family and her mentor, which sounded lovely and thorough, and like a wonderful and appropriate tribute to a remarkable young black woman, was not picked up and included in the paper. It hurt that no follow-up to the brief article that didn't mention her name ever appeared in the paper acknowledging who she was and the loss of a truly beautiful person. I am not sure that I was the very last person she talked to as she made her Easter calls, though I have always imagined I was. It seems like whoever investigated what happened to her was unconcerned. There was very little information about what happened to her, and I knew very little myself. And to this day, I have also never heard what happened to the person who did it, or if he even ever went to trial and jail or was institutionalized. The media has never mentioned anything about it, and after they first reported the incident, again, never followed up with a mention of who she was or where she came from. That the fine article written about her was not published felt like a slap in the face, and reminded me, yet again, how devalued black women’s lives and experiences can be by the media. This phenomenon accords with what Rebecca Wanzo describes in her book entitled The Suffering Will Not Be Televised: African American Women and Sentimental Political Storytelling. I heard of a similar failure in Northern California to report on a crime against a young black woman in the media in more recent years, and it took me right back to the case with my friend. It may be that because they felt they had their man, nothing else needed to be said about it, or my friend.

I can’t even describe the numbing feeling of standing in front of a classroom for the first time in the aftermath and looking out at a lecture hall of students, hoping and praying words and reality would find me again; my graduate TA let the video we were playing run for longer than planned, sensing the difficulty of the moment for me. Otherwise, on campus, I was on my own in all of it. A friend in Southern studies and his wife met me in Montgomery to attend my cousin’s debutante's cotillion that next Saturday, I flew cross-country back to California that Monday just to teach my Tuesday graduate class, and cross-country back to Montgomery that Wednesday to attend my friend’s service that Thursday. I didn’t ask my department for any special favors and teaching days away, and no one can ever say that it did anything to make things easier or better for me during that time, because that just didn’t happen. The bureaucracy on my job went on. I was very prepared for tenure review by then, and everything was on track, but even so, no one seemed to think or care whether I was in any shape and frame of mind to go up for tenure or to submit my dossier on time after experiencing this horrible tragedy. If a woman is having a baby, it’s one thing, but if she’s suffered through the murder of a friend, then there’s no university policy as obvious or accessible that accounts for such personal issues. As a young and single woman, I felt entirely illegible within the campus policies, definitions, procedures and benefits related to family and work/life issues.

All of this, I think, was also just a byproduct of the kind of alienation that can happen in a state bureaucracy. And I feel that it is, too, because I experienced a version of this again in the fall of 2005 when one of my students, a graduate student enrolled in my undergraduate African American literature lecture, was reported in the news as missing and then discovered to have died tragically a few days later. My TA and I were on our own in dealing with the shock and pain of our class of 60 students and our own hurt and as we ordered flowers and circulated cards signed by the students to send to the young woman's family. The only institutional acknowledgement I got of it was an email from the registrar that dropped the student from the roll. I broke down in my office and cried when I received it. I couldn’t believe that a beautiful young black woman was gone, and that the only engagement with her teachers about it was to drop her from my class roll, as if there needed to be any more concrete reminders that she was gone. I knew she wasn't there anymore and didn’t need that revised roster. Receiving that email was utterly devastating to me. In that moment, there seemed to be no support available. What happened in that situation is also one of the reasons that I vowed not to ever work on a campus again that has no chapel present, for when matters of faith are relevant, secular institutional approaches can be insufficient to address such issues and are not always adequate to provide the layers of support necessary to help people through difficult moments. No teaching resources center even seemed prepared to deal with the kinds of tough pedagogical issues that came with that tragic situation, or the kinds of issues it brought up for me that had nothing to do with teaching in the typical sense.

When I was tenured unanimously at Associate Professor, Step II in my department in October of 2004 and also voted and proposed as a candidate for an additional accelerated promotion, it felt great. But by then, a part of me definitely wanted to leave California. I was truly ready to leave for that and a range of other reasons. My constant prayer was to move on. Yet, life doesn’t work like that. One day at a time, one step at a time, God brought me through it, helped me to find ways to push through it, and made me stronger. When I finally did leave, I felt sad to leave my place, which I loved, and that was where my friend remembered me living. She’d come in, and play this game of picking out any new painting, and I knew what all of her favorite things there were.

I’ve shared all of this to say that when I heard Rachel Jeantal’s testimony, I so identified with her. I was able to understand at least to some extent what she experienced with Trayvon from the trauma I also experienced when losing my friend, and from our telephone exchange. Every day that Rachel has ever been able to smile again and face the world is a miracle. I remember my friend’s story and how her loss devastated so many people, and feel for Rachel and Trayvon. I will never forget that final call. Until a person has walked a mile in another person’s shoes or been where they have been, it is impossible to know them, or to even judge them, and judging Rachel or anybody is never right anyway. Tupac had it so right. “Only God can judge me.” And only God truly knows the depth of the pain this young woman has been through. Only God.

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