When we saw Rachel Jeantel on the witness stand today, we saw ourselves. We saw the daughter of immigrants, the product of Miami Norland Senior High School and the poignant realities of the disparities in our public education system that provides unequal opportunities to many immigrant students and students of color. However, none of that gave us pause or made us ashamed. Instead it was the mocking disdain from the stewards of respectability amongst the Black bourgeoisie (real and imagined) that caused us to cringe in embarrassment.
The disdain and outright rejection of this young woman whipped the Twitter Talented Tenth into such a frenzy that, within moments of Ms. Jeantel taking the stand, calls of “we got to do better” filled our timelines. The chastising of this woman’s speech and body language belied the fact that many themselves were rejecting their own self-reflection. For far too many of our community members that epitomize Drake’s “started from the bottom" mantra would like to forget the places from whence they came. For these folks, the fact that we have “made it” implies that we came from somewhere lesser, somewhere we should be ashamed of mentioning at Sunday brunch in our newly-gentrified neighborhoods. More than anything else, we over-emphasize the factors, real or perceived, that distinguish ourselves from someone like Ms. Jeantel, who was described by CNN as “unpolished” and HLN noted that she “didn’t speak the Queen’s English.”
However, the truth we continue to ignore is that we are only a few steps removed from being that “unpolished” woman on the stand.
Our direct connection to Ms. Jeantel is not a hypothetical one when education in concerned. We both graduated from the high school where she is currently a senior, Miami Norland Senior High. Her lack of speaking confidence and poor sentence construction remind us painfully of the immense impact that seemingly small opportunities can have on producing distinct outcomes from similar beginnings. Having a rare teacher expressing confidence in your potential or building your public speaking skills as the only “urban” students at a Model UN competition can make all the difference. When Ms. Jeantel hit the stand, the Black twitterverse should have begun the important discussion of how we can improve upon the issues of access and exposure so integral in shaping our youth’s experience. Instead, most reverted to the easy virtual stone throwing.
And while educational disparities are easier to openly acknowledge and discuss, classism within our own community is not. Judging by the lightening quick critiques of Ms. Jeantel’s quips and gestures, no one had any problems understanding her. However, what many African Americans in our social media communities secretly wanted was for Ms. Jeantel to code switch, remove the vernacular from her vocabulary directly rooted in this young woman’s experience to make her more appealing to Whites, and less “embarrassing” to the guardians of acceptable Blackness. The notion that Ms. Jeantel was somehow inarticulate perpetuates the stereotype that our youth lack credibility, intelligence, and purpose as their authentic selves. It furthers the stigma that we do not deserve to be the storytellers of our own experiences, in our own voices and languages. We see this manifestation of self-hate again and again in post-slavery and post-colonial societies that rather embrace the language of their oppressor and openly vilify the speech rooted in the historical experience of the African Diaspora.
On Facebook, Stacey Patton, the creator of Sparethekids.com, reminded us about “Mose Wright, the 64-year-old uncle of Emmett Till who was brutally lynched in 1955 in Mississippi. There was that electric moment in the courtroom when he was asked if he could identify one of the men who snatched his nephew in the middle of the night. Old man Wright stood up, pointed straight at the defendant and said in broken English, ‘Dar he.’ His bravery gave others who were semiliterate and felt powerless the courage to stand up and testify.”
Let’s remember Mose Wright because, Like Trayvon Martin’s controversial photo with gold teeth, we’ve allowed Ms. Jeantel’s broken English to become a sideshow to the real issue, our children’s right to safely walk the streets, because we are too embarrassed to stand up for them amidst media scrutiny. Ms. Jeantel should not be lambasted for being a product of her environment and education, instead you should be the one who feels ashamed that even after all that has happened to us as a people, you still believe that speaking proper English or dressing and acting less “urban” alone will not subject you to institutionalized racism, suspicion, or a fate similar to Trayvon’s. What Ms. Jeantel has been this entire time is authentic, our community should remain committed to doing the same.
Dar he, indeed.
DA Lovell and France Francois both currently reside in Washington, DC. DA is an international philanthropic advisor. Follow DA on Twitter @dalovalova. France