Trayvon Martin and I have one thing in common, other than being Black males, of course: neither of us celebrated our 21st birthdays.
But we have very different reasons for not partying, “turning up” and loudly acknowledging the day most guys officially look at themselves as “grown ass men.”
In my case, I was a junior in college with a heavy load of classes, 21 credits, including a journalism law class, the toughest in my major to pass. Around that time, there was no time to wild out, no breaks, no fraternizing with my frat brothers. Just straight buckling down and hitting the books, hoping I could earn a decent grade. My 21st birthday came and went quietly. I never even gave it much thought.
But for Trayvon, whose birthday came on Friday, it was much less complicated: he was killed by a malevolent self-appointed neighborhood guardian named George Zimmerman.
We won’t ever know whether or not Trayvon would have partied hard or hit the books on his milestone night because he was denied the chance to do either.
No need to recant the story of their conflict and the resulting fatal gunshot wound Trayvon took from Zimmerman’s pistol. No need to bring back memories of the trial which seemed to convict Trayvon and exonerate Zimmerman. No need to remember the pain on parents Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin’s faces when prosecutors failed to win a conviction because jurors did not have the tools they needed to convict. We don’t have to review the fact that our young Black people face a daunting likelihood of injustice at the hands of police and, in this case, vigilantes.
We collectively ached when we found out the 17-year-old would not get justice. The 24-hour news cycle erupted, predictably with talking heads, analysis, debates, and the case arguably gave rise to the social media activism that seems to be ubiquitous today.
Still, I was never able to get past the fact that a kid who was looking forward to making it out of high school, then perhaps attempting to make something of himself…while making the same mistakes, celebrating the same triumphs and lamenting the same failures that all young men do in this society, won’t get to do any of that as I did.
No, Trayvon’s death was not a new phenomenon for me. Burying dead homies is somehow a factor in the life of young African Americans. A sickening normalcy.
Despite that, we find reasons to keep going. To hope for a better tomorrow. To laugh with our friends, and to love them because truth be told, we don’t know what’s around the corner. An adversary with an itchy trigger finger, a gun-toting gangbanger who is also a poor marksman but doesn’t care, a nervous cop who thinks you’re packing heat, or a doofus wannabe neighborhood watch patrolman.
In Trayvon’s case it was the latter, and it stopped him from arriving at this point, the “grown-ass man” phase of his life.
So despite spending my milestone birthday in a university library nervously going over notes I had copiously taken from a fast-talking professor, I consider myself quite fortunate. In the town I was in, there were plenty of would-be George Zimmermans. As fate would have it, none of them had the gumption to stalk and kill me. I lived to see my 22nd, 23rd and many other birthdays after that.
That’s a gift Trayvon will not receive through no fault of his own, I’ll maintain.
A gift we should all be able to take for granted in spite of people with guns, attitudes and a lopsided justice system that favors them, time and time again.
Madison J. Gray is a Journalist and former Managing Editor of Ebony.com. Follow him on Twitter @madisonjgray