I don’t remember what I was doing when George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. I’m sure I was watching the All-Stars game, as I had done since I was a kid even younger than Trayvon. I may have even made a snack run to 7-Eleven. I almost certainly was tweeting, or at the very least reading Twitter. I may have been on deadline and convincing myself that watching the game wasn’t procrastinating but all a part of my writing process. I was probably stressing about money. I probably wasn’t thinking about dead black boys.

I’ve had the opportunity to do a number of things Trayvon will never have the chance to, and the guilt of that weighs heavily on me. Everything Trayvon did that supposedly justified his death—wear hoodies, walk to the store at night, buy Skittles, have tattoos, smoke weed, be suspended from school—I did. I could have been Trayvon. So many of us black boys trying to become black men in America could have been. Knowing that made his death that much harder to stomach.

One of the more pernicious effects of racism on the psyche is the constant questioning of one’s worth and purpose. It can be almost as debilitating as death. Almost. I don’t wish to make these things seem equivalent. I have my life; Trayvon does not. But the source of my guilt is understanding that American racism will take some of our lives while holding others of us up as exemplars of success, providing the illusion that there is an escape. It places us in the unenviable position of wishing that our martyrs could have survived to become tokens.

I tried to imagine who Trayvon would have been on February 26, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and beyond. The things he would have seen, the world he would have known, how he would have created himself. When you’re introduced to a martyr as a result of their death, they aren’t a whole person. They are a name and a story. They are a set of symbols and projections. Their lives are flattened for our consumption, and whatever attempts we make to remind ourselves of their humanity are no substitute for the face-to-face interactions we’ll never have with them.

There’s a particular pain in that realization when the martyrs are as young as Trayvon. I didn’t get to know who Trayvon was, but as a seventeen-year-old he probably hardly knew himself. He liked football, Lil Wayne, airplanes, and taking things apart to put them back together, but he never got the opportunity to ask himself why. He never had his assumptions challenged, never had his worldview shattered, his heroes humanized, or his morals questioned. He never had to confront his own bigotry or his complicity in different systems of oppression. To ask who he would have been on February 26, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and beyond is try to fill in the gaps where only experience can be the guide, and George Zimmerman took the opportunity for experience away from Trayvon.

Trayvon Martin was a seventeen-year-old black boy in America. White supremacy tells a lot of lies about seventeen-year-old black boys who grow up in America, but we can’t escape the fact that those black boys absorb a culture of misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, class-based elitism, self-hatred, violence, untreated mental illness, and a host of other American problems that translate differently when experienced through the lens of American racism.

I don’t want to appear to be tarnishing the image of Trayvon Martin, a black boy I never knew. There’s an almost instinctual desire to protect our martyrs, so many of them being young black men viciously maligned in life and unable to escape the barbs of racism in death. If we don’t rescue their narratives, they’ll forever be remembered only to the extent that white supremacy lends them any humanity. But we do a disservice to our martyrs by imposing perfection upon them. We do a greater disservice to ourselves, the survivors and potential tokens, by not honestly reckoning with who our martyrs were and who they could have been.

We resist this conversation because black men and the culture they create so easily become scapegoats. Without nuance, it very quickly turns toward a blaming of black men for the existence of misogyny, homophobia, and the rest of those American problems, not a careful examination of how black men can experience or contribute to these forms of oppression. And the more the image of black men is connected to everything wrong with the world, the easier it is to justify killing us. Racism comes to be seen as a natural reaction to the existence of black monsters.

Who would Trayvon Martin have been on February 26, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and beyond? The short answer: he would have been a black man in America. The long answer involves figuring out exactly what that entails.

I was twenty-five years old when George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. I hadn’t prepared for life at twenty-five, having believed at different points of my life that I wouldn’t make it that far. I could have been Trayvon, or any number of nameless, faceless black boys killed by police or vigilantes, by other black men, or themselves. Twenty-five was a relief and a surprise and opportunity. I would be afforded the time to create myself that Trayvon wasn’t.

I didn’t know how to do that. Or, I didn’t know how to do that and become a healthy and whole human being. It seemed that every black man I witnessed attempting to create himself came through to the other side broken. They walked through the culture of misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, class-based elitism, self-hatred, violence, untreated mental illness, and other American problems and emerged as living proof of the lies white supremacy tells about black boys and men in America. I was doing the same, because I knew no other way.

Then George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. I looked at the face of the boy who became a symbol and wanted more. I wanted more for him than the choice between martyr and token. I wanted more for him than eulogies and praise songs. I wanted more for him than just an opportunity to create himself. I wanted for him, for all the Trayvons in waiting, a world where they didn’t have to grow up broken or not grow up at all.

I wanted to figure out how to create that world. I looked at my own life and asked how I made it to twenty-five. I asked who influenced me to think the way I did, what events had been most important in shaping my worldview, who and what challenged me to see it all differently. I asked myself: How did you learn to be a black man?

Then I wrote down some answers, for the martyrs and the tokens, for the Trayvons that could have been and are still waiting. …

Black people of all ages and genders are walking around with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and survivor’s guilt without anywhere to turn. We attempt to heal our broken insides with whatever is available. More often than not, what’s available are the most unhealthy options. We overdose on liquor and drugs, unprotected sex, violence and repression because that’s all that is there to help us cope. It’s important not to pathologize this kind of behavior as uniquely black, because everyone self-medicating an undiagnosed mental illness is susceptible, but at the same time we have to recognize that this is all that’s offered to black people in terms of help. So like every other social ill, our post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and survivor’s guilt takes a more dangerous turn when filtered through American racism…

But with so much stigma surrounding mental illness and mental health care, this hasn’t become a staple of our advocacy. And even where there’s acknowledgement that mental illness is real, it takes a back seat to issues like police violence, poverty, and incarceration. We fail to make the connection between these things and the prevalence of mental illnesses within our community. How many of us are watching the latest video of police assaulting or killing a young black person and slipping into depression? How many of us are being sent to prison, locked away in solitary confinement, and coming out on the other side suicidal? How many of us experience anxiety and paranoia from the stress of poverty, and lack of food, and exposure to the daily violence that becomes an outgrowth of our attempts to survive? The everyday condition of blackness in America is enough to drive you crazy, but without those connections, we’ve been lacking in advocates.

What would happen if we reframed the way we understand black male life in a way that took mental health seriously? … If instead of chastising young men for fighting over sneakers we asked why they feel worthless and unseen without them. If we didn’t label them junkies but rather recognized their need for affirmation. If we held our boys close when they cried instead of turning them away to face the frustration, pain, and sadness “like a man.” If we believed black boys were worthy of second chances that didn’t involve prison cells. What if?

We might start to worry. Then we might start to heal.


Excerpted from Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education (Nation Books). Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow and writer at The Nation. Follow him on Twitter: @mychalsmith.