I’m longing for the day when folk like me and Trayvon and Korryn and Lennon and Aiyana and Botham don’t need to be lucky to stay alive.
I thought he had a gunHe looked dangerous, like he was up to something
The other day, I found out that Trayvon was posthumously awarded a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical science from Florida Memorial University, an HBCU in Miami. He loved planes. He wanted to be a pilot, in fact, and he’d been well on his way there before he was murdered. During high school, he studied at the George T. Baker Aviation Technical College in Miami. His uncle, Ronald Fulton, had also been a professional pilot for a brief time. He looked up to Barrington Irving, a black Jamaican pilot who grew up in Miami. When Trayvon was twelve, Barrington Irving, at twenty-four years old, became the youngest person to complete a solo flight around the world. Trayvon attended Irving’s summer programs, where he got to showcase the already-substantial mechanical skills that he’d honed over years of taking apart dirt bikes and fixing up cars.
I loved the sky, too. I remember the excitement before every flight, not only for the trip but for the time and distance away from my father’s violence. Back when you could walk with someone through airport security without a boarding pass or even a second look, my mom would walk us to the gate and wait with us until it was time to board the plane. Then she’d kiss me on the cheek and tell me not to wipe her lipstick off, which I’d do as soon as she was out of sight. I hated having that wet, waxy feeling on my face that remained no matter how hard I scrubbed.
The flight attendants took over in my mom’s absence. These pleasant, near-identical white women with too much makeup, forced smiles fixed on their faces, and teeth that were always a little too flawless and a little too white would affix a plastic set of pilot’s wings to my shirt and seat me before the adults, like I was some sort of special guest. They’d dote on me, bring me extra snacks, ask me about whatever book I was reading and then tune out when I began talking about dragons and wizards. Once, the pilot himself came out, talked to me, and let me stand in the cockpit where I marveled at the hundreds of switches, dials, buttons.
I always asked to sit by the window and the flight attendants always made it happen, even if that meant someone else had to scoot over. I liked watching the world shrink as we ascended, as we rose into the sky and pierced the clouds before settling into a steady cruise as the infinite expanse of cotton fluff hovered beneath us. I liked seeing the sunset from above the clouds, transfixed by the beauty of white turning to pink, to gold, to red, before settling on a soft, moonlit blue. I was in the air for the Fourth of July once. Below us, fireworks were bursting into a kaleidoscope of colors that were visible through the layer of sky. It was strange to watch them and not hear the thunderous booms of their explosions, to watch the clouds light up with yellows and greens and oranges in silence, and so I imagined them instead and played their crashes and roars in my head as the plane cut through the sky towards Orlando.
After landing, we’d wait in our seats until a flight attendant walked us off the plane and into the airport proper. Most of the time, my aunt would be there waiting for us but, if she wasn’t, we waited with the unclaimed baggage until she arrived. Even inside the airport, I felt the heat and the humidity, thick and sticky. The air smelled like my brother’s terrarium, like lizards and frogs and moss, like wetness itself. In the few minutes it took to walk to my aunt’s car, the moisture left my body covered in a sheen of sweat.
I hated sweating. I still do. I couldn’t stand the feeling of a cold bead of wetness leaving my armpit to run down my side, the sting of it as it flowed from my forehead through my eyelashes and into my eyes, and the slick of sweat that’d form on my nose forcing me to push my glasses up over and over to keep them from falling off of my face. Despite my aversion to my sweat, though, I was outside most of the time, drenched and dripping.
I didn’t want to stay indoors where I had nothing to do except read. Under normal circumstances, this would be fine but my aunt was an intensely religious woman and she didn’t approve of the fantasy books I read, filled as they were with magic, orcs, demons, and other things she found sinful and immoral. Such books weren’t permitted in her house. Any attempts to argue for my fantasy novels were met with agonizingly long lectures filled with fallacious arguments about faith and Christianity and the god she believed in, the god she mistakenly thought I believed in. The alternative—spending the day in sweat-soaked clothes while batting away mosquitoes—was far preferable. Any alternative was, even when it meant waking up at five or six in the morning to spend the day outside searching for frogs, lizards, and snakes.
They’d bring out his report cards, harp on his Ds and Fs, because death is the apparent cost of black imperfection.
I’m not sure when Stan and I began The Hunt, as I like to call it now, but it became a staple of our summers in Heathrow. We woke before dawn, when the world was on the cusp of becoming light and the stars were beginning to vanish from sight. We left the house in silence, moving on our tiptoes towards the front door where we’d placed our backpacks, filled with supplies, the night before. I slipped my feet into my sandals, pulled on my bag, and crept out the door behind my brother who slowly, carefully shut the door behind us.
I remember stepping into the grass, which was still wet with morning dew and cool against my toes. The air was warm, the humidity was building, and after a few minutes my armpits were already wet against my t-shirt. We headed for the basketball court—the lizards and snakes were most plentiful there; we often found them basking on the edges of the sun-warmed blacktop, dodging and scampering out of the way of basketballs and sneakers before returning, moments later, to the warmth—and I checked the backpack as I walked, taking inventory: two shoeboxes to house what we caught—one punched through with a few air holes, the other a backup in case we ran out of space; water bottles; washcloths to wipe the sweat from our brows; a Tupperware container for the snakes (they could slither out of the air holes in the shoebox, I found out, after reaching into the bag on another hunt and shrieking as a black racer wound itself around my wrist); lettuce for them to eat; a handful of poppers and firecrackers to scare the creatures out of their hiding places in the bushes and the underbrush; and a screwdriver and one of our aunt’s sharper cooking knives to poke more air holes as needed.
We stayed outside for hours, returning to our aunt’s around noon to eat and take a break from the sun at its highest, hottest point before returning to The Hunt. In the early mornings, we would pass by old white folks power walking, pumping their wrinkled, leathery, Florida-tanned arms. In the afternoon, we would see less-elderly-but-not-quite-young white folks working on their lawns and their gardens or washing and polishing their Lexuses, their BMWs. I don’t remember if they ever looked at us, if they studied us and wondered what we were up to, if they ever thought we were suspicious, because back then the thought that they might feel that way never crossed my mind.
I never once thought about how the wealthy white folks of Heathrow, fifteen minutes away from where Trayvon’s life ended, would see two black boys, unsupervised, crawling around on the ground, throwing poppers and firecrackers, walking past the same houses, the same areas of the community over and over. I never thought about what could happen if someone did call the police on us.
We never encountered the police during those summers in Heathrow. We were stopped by neighborhood security a few times but they never held us up for long. I don’t remember if they carried guns, if that was part of their uniformed duties.
Even still, I think about what could’ve happened, how those interactions with the security officers could have ended. I think about the fact that Trayvon Martin was murdered for being a black boy in a gated community in Florida who wanted some candy and something to drink. I think about the fact that my brother and I—sometimes together, often apart—would walk a mile and a half to the nearby Walgreens to get Sour Patch Kids and a strawberry soda. And I think about the fact that this Walgreens is just over a mile away from the 7-Eleven where Trayvon’s end began.
I have looked at a number of maps, charts, and graphs, trying to find some radical shift in the identities of these two communities between the summers in which my brother and I hunted for critters in the underbrush and that day in February in which George Zimmerman hunted and murdered Trayvon Martin. I sifted through the 2000 and 2010 datasets, looked at election results, religious affiliation, even air quality, but I could find no substantial difference between the Heathrow I spent my summers in and the Heathrow today. Nor is there any difference between the Twin Lakes area as it existed in 2000 and The Retreat at Twin Lakes as it exists now.
By which I mean: In February of 2012, Trayvon was murdered less than a mile and a half away from the Walgreens that my brother and I walked to at all hours of the day and night. But he could have been murdered in 1998, in 2000. He could’ve been murdered walking with a friend to Heathrow, walking with a friend from Heathrow. Or it could have been my brother, shot dead, in a hoodie with a Lemon-Lime Gatorade and some Starburst in his hand. It could’ve been me with an orange soda and some gummy bears. It could’ve been both of us, dead in a gated community that had seemed to tolerate us, forgetting we still lived in a country that failed to do even that. It could’ve been my aunt who filed a missing persons report after waking up and seeing our empty beds. It could’ve been my aunt who, after hearing the doorbell, opened her front door to a handful of police officers holding photos of her recently murdered nephews.
I’m not alive because we lived in a ‘nice’ neighborhood. I’m not alive because I’d skipped two grades as a kid. I’m not alive because of the clothes I wore or didn’t wear. And I’m certainly not alive because of faith, since I have none. I am only alive because I wasn’t followed one night and shot dead by a man in the neighborhood watch. I am only alive because no one ever called the police on my brother and me when we played outside with toy guns. I am only alive because, so far, nobody has thought that the phone in my hand or the wallet in my pocket was a gun. I am only alive because I’m a black boy who’s been lucky in a country that’s built on destroying and disappearing black folk and I’m longing for the day when folk like me and Trayvon and Korryn and Lennon and Aiyana and Botham don’t need to be lucky to stay alive, don’t need to be lucky to make it to their eighteenth birthday, don’t need to be lucky to soar into the sky, far above the clouds, as they’ve always dreamed.
Jordan K. Thomas is a black prose writer whose work focuses on black grief and black joy. His writing has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Kweli Journal, The Toast, The Essay Review, and elsewhere. He was the runner-up for The Pinch's 2018 Literary Awards in Creative Nonfiction, was awarded a Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative grant in 2017, and was a finalist in Indiana Review's 2015 Nonfiction Prize, judged by Kiese Laymon. He holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Minnesota and lives in St. Paul.