She was 16 when Trayvon Martin was stalked and shot to death by George Zimmerman.
If he’d made it home alive instead of wrapped in a body bag, Trayvon would be around Dorian Gordon’s age.
She’s 22, grew up in Dorchester, a world away from him. But she’ll never forget the boy, armed with only a bag of Skittles and an iced tea, gunned down in Sanford, Fla., in 2012 for being black.
His death gave rise to #BlackLivesMatter, but Zimmerman walked free. And for Gordon, nothing was the same. Brutality killed Trayvon. It bruised the living for life.
“Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story,” a six-part weekly docuseries, debuted on BET this week. The show isn’t a reflection of how far we’ve come. It didn’t reopen the wound. It only affirmed we’ve yet to form a scab. The pain is tender, throbbing, a vicious pulse beneath the meat.
“To me, Trayvon is the Emmett Till of our time,” Gordon says. “The innocence. He was just this baby in this world and there’s nothing he could have done. Trayvon Martin is very similar, just forever this little boy.”
Gordon is not frozen in adolescence. A recent Harvard grad, she’s looking to make her first career move. Her dream is to land a gig at an art gallery.
But in a post-Trayvon world where bias against black people affects everything from the rate of arrests for the killing of black people to the way lawyers lack respect for black judges, she’s anxious.
The struggle, she says, is an example of double-consciousness, a term coined by scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois. It describes the way black people are always two people, looking at themselves through the contemptuous eyes of others.
“It’s hard enough finding yourself and coming into you own at 14 and 15,” Gordon says. “But if you are grappling with that and blackness, do you ever get the freedom to become who you are? Or are you always factoring in the expectations of others and doubting yourself always?”
The shooting of Trayvon made it clear we’re still looking for answers. His death didn’t just affect Florida, it tore through America. It not only hurt black boys. It hurt black people.
“I think it’s affected the way I present myself so deeply and foundationally,” she says. “It’s a tip-toeing kind of life, avoiding misunderstanding. I don’t raise my voice in public really ever. I try to remain as unnoticed as possible.”
The thing is, Gordon stands out in the crowd. One recent afternoon on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, the sun catches the glow of her brown skin, rich like soil. Her voice is light but cuts with clarity. She has a quiet confidence, an optimism coated in caution.
She credits her mama, a modest upbringing, and the Winsor School for her resilience. Even in a class where there were only five other girls of color and an incredible wealth gap between her and most of the other students, she calls it a blessing.
“It was liberal and accepting,” she says, “but there were moments of microaggressions.”
Can I touch your hair? Your skin is so beautiful. Africans have no culture.
Still, she wouldn’t change a thing.
“I think a lot of my esteem can be traced back to Winsor, to girl empowerment, an unmatched education and support system,” she says. “Surrounding yourself with people who believe in you, family and friends who tell you that you are worth more, keeps you going.”
You need that when the world is consistently trying to bring you down. It’s an awkward place to be, 22 and black in 2018.
Her childhood president was Barack Obama. But her childhood tragedy was Trayvon. Her entry into adulthood was Trump.
“I look at me and my friends, we are Winsor grads, Harvard grads, and we are black women,” she says. “We did that. I’m very proud but always with lingering doubt. I seek refuge in the black community. There’s a sense of understanding, grace-giving, safety and comfort.”
I look around the Greenway as she says this. White people are on benches, lying on the grass, standing on the sidewalks. There are two other black people in the public space — a young man eating his lunch on the bench closest to Gordon and a young woman who found a space on the other side of me.
There were other seats. But they found their way to us. Maybe purposefully seeking solitude from the Permit Pattys, playing defense in a world looking to be offended by their presence.
“We have always had to know white people,” she says. “So a sense of empathy has always been there. But there are white people who’ve never had to meet anyone else, who’ve never met a black person. That’s sad.”
So they decide who we are: thugs. Trayvon’s hoodie, forever a symbol of danger.
“I think my mom really felt it, sending these little brown people in the world,” Gordon says. “This one time I had a hoodie on, my mom told me take it off. I was just in the house. She says take it off. You know why? It reminded her so much of him.”
Her mama also tells her to believe in herself and let go of the second-guessing. But it’s hard.
The murders didn’t start or stop with Trayvon. It just is, she declares. The truth is blistering.
The killing of unarmed black people on film are a genre of injustice. This summer, videos of the shootings of Thurman Blevins, Maurice Granton Jr., and Markeis McGlockton, and the unprovoked tasing of Sean D. Williams went viral. The murders of Nia Wilson and MeShon Cooper weren’t on camera but we could make an encyclopedia of the hashtag memorials since Trayvon.
“I don’t think I ever felt like change was happening,” she says. “I think Black Lives Matter is great. It’s therapeutic for people who believe it. But I don’t think anyone is honestly being convinced black lives matter.”
Still, Gordon isn’t afraid a Nazi will slit her throat on the T or a cop will gun her down. Well, not often.
“I used to wonder why don’t I feel more,” she says, her delicate brown hands hugging her arms. “I remember when Philando Castile was murdered in his car. Every time I heard a police siren I physically got anxious. It wasn’t a fear of police, but a fear of there being no safe action I could make, not even reaching for my wallet.”
What message has this sent to our young?
We’ve been marching, voting, crying, and fighting. We’re still dying. Change is hard to see in the midst of the battle.
“I think sometime in my life I’ll see it,” she says. “I don’t feel like I have the power. At this point right now, I think about how I can live my best life in this system and do it safely.”
This is not just about the death of Trayvon Martin. This is about the murder of our right to freely exist.
Because Gordon’s power is in being herself and claiming her space, liberated from doubts shrouded in supremacy. This is our beauty, our strength, and our resistance.
Our black lives should matter beyond the cold confines of code-switching to survive American dreams.Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.