Cedric Powell, a tenured African American law professor at a major university in Kentucky, shared the following story with me: Walking in downtown Louisville with his son Coleman, he saw two people, both White, one female. He’d interacted with the couple frequently on campus and was pleased to see them here, in another context. As he waved, then approached, they peered at him warily. When he and his son moved closer, the couple’s anxiety was apparent. And heightened. Unconsciously, they huddled closer together. Their tension increased as the distance between Cedric and the couple decreased. To defuse the situation, he extended his hand, walked forward, and said, “Hey! It’s me Cedric.” The couple breathed a sigh of relief, visibly blushing, and giggling nervously in apology. Cedric told me he was going to write about the incident. It was a familiar one: we both laughed the laugh of recognition and experience.
Why was the couple so apprehensive? Were they closet racists? No. They were and remain two decent, friendly, educated people. Was it because they were in a Black neighborhood? No, the encounter occurred downtown. So why then were they afraid?
Despite all the time spent with him on campus, they did not see Cedric. They did not see his son. Cedric became an Invisible Man. All they saw was a walking, two-bodied Black trope. And that is exactly what George Zimmerman saw: a trope. All he experienced. Not Trayvon Martin. Not a person. Not an American or even a human being, just a Black trope — a disruptive figure occupying the anxiety-ridden terrain of his White imagination. Therefore, as it has been during and since the American Enslavement, it, the Black trope, had to be domesticated. Controlled. Put in its place. And if necessary, murdered.
Most of us significantly misunderstand rhetoric — we underestimate the power of tropes. Tropes are not abstract, nor neutral. A trope — whether in the form of an image, entity, symbol, speech act, or gesture — can emit dense concentrations of cultural, experiential, and political energy and effects — energy producing profound effects for particular audiences, altering, heightening, and increasing the persuasive weight and gravitas of cultural symbols, signs, and representations. It can merge thinking, feeling, and experience. Camouflage differences. For example, as former President Bill Clinton said in a speech, America is not a place; the United States of America is a place. America, instead, is a trope. A trope so powerful in the public imaginary of the United States that it swallows, covers up, camouflages, and disappears the distinctiveness and the fissures or inconsistencies inherent in any nation-state. Another example of how tropes work is same sex marriage. For many, the “right to marry” is not a repudiation of the American trope; it is evidence of its flexibility. It is a broadening and deepening of what the trope can incorporate, without altering the fundamental order of things. For others it is a deep threat to another trope, that of the “traditional American family” — those who would like to see that trope as an actual institution are correct in fearing the power of an expanded notion of marriage. Tropes can gain and lose cultural power.
The United States is an empire that enforces its will in the world with drones and surges, that has a long history of supporting authoritarian regimes and subverting civil liberties. Still, because of the lasting power of notions of freedom and democracy, these ideas cling to the American trope like a frayed, but warm coat. The Black trope possesses no such coat. It covers up, camouflages, and swallows up the distinctive individual personhood of any particular Black person. When Zimmerman and Whites like him believe themselves to be in jeopardy, the Black trope alters, heightens, increases and releases an unhinged, undomesticated, or criminalized Blackness that frightens. It is a kind of Blackness Whites are often attracted to in movies (re: Training Day), music (Hip-hop), sports and news programming (take your pick), but repelled by when encountered in the real, mundane, embodied world of the every day — the world where White fear almost always trumps Black vulnerability and pain, where White fear turns a Black child into a Black trope.
The Black body is guilty until proven innocent. George Zimmerman did not even have to testify because the fear of the Black trope permeates the American imaginary like bacteria permeates the human body. The always-already criminalized Black trope speaks for itself. Zimmerman’s Whiteness spoke for him. And as bacteria keeps the human body alive, the Black trope keeps the racial underbelly of the American imaginary alive. Hortense J. Spillers writes in her germinal essay Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book that Black women have been misnamed and mis-constructed as Sapphire, Aunt Jemima, and other types. The same applies to the Black trope: it is an essential ingredient of the dehumanizing grammar of racial representation in America.
Consider Zimmerman’s vigilante “stand your ground” pose as a trope. The power of the trope emerging from the American electricity of rugged individualism, the right to bear arms, private property, and the protection of the American project of progress requiring the civilizing or disciplining of the uncivilized, the savage, the foreigner, and the criminal. Why did the vigilante trope work to perfection for Zimmerman? The vigilante trope is White. It is raced, gendered and classed. Does anyone believe that if the victim were White, a Black male could adopt the vigilante pose to equal effect? That an Asian could? A lesbian? A poor Black woman? Tropes influence human behavior almost as much as human behavior influence the use of tropes. Zimmerman was performed by the trope. It took over his body as Zimmerman exuded the arrogance, confidence, and racial tone-deafness the trope demands. Both his individuality and his Whiteness were evoked and protected by the trope. Unfortunately the Black trope erased Trayvon’s individuality. Transformed his Blackness into spectacle.
Trayvon the person, the human being, rarely entered the courtroom. The defense was unwilling to skirmish with the Trayvon invented by Zimmerman: Trayvon as King Kong in a hoodie: savage, undomesticated, prone to violence, guilty by definition; George Zimmerman as Fay Wray: fragile, scared, driven to self-defense, innocent through skin. The prosecution tapped into the galvanizing energy of the Black trope with such brio that the defense lawyers seemed to be Moot Court scrubs. The misbehaving Black body (that is, any Black body challenging White notions of proper Black civility and decorum in fact or in fearful projection) is by definition wrong, needing to be quelled and made to behave, often by calling the police to say how “scared” they were, how they feared for their safety.
A few months ago, a White male insulted a companion I was with, rudely bullying into my companion’s private space, moving personal belongings without permission. I confronted him, and then went to management to complain. Who did they attempt to keep quiet? To calm? Me. Of course not every White person would shiver with fear as the couple did when Cedric approached him or her. But my having to add this caveat is part of the problem. White comfort and fear is so privileged that I feel I must add a conciliatory caveat allowing White readers to lift themselves off the racial hook, to provide some verbal grease so they might slide off. White comfort is so taken for granted, even the President of the United States avoids addressing race, on the grounds that it might cost him the so-called White vote. White comfort is so powerful that President Obama finally made his “If I had a son he would look like Trayvon” comment only after it was clear people were taking to the streets in protest, and even the so-called White vote would have been perplexed at his silence. It is not only White folk who underestimate the persuasive power or the Black trope.
Excuse me. But when I saw people, Black folks, crying in surprise over the verdict, in disbelief, I shook my head in perplexed disgust. It is one thing to cry because one is tired-of-being-tired of the same old bait-and switch ritual too often called justice. But crying in disbelief? How could any African American over the age of 18 believe that Zimmerman would be found guilty? Tears of surprise about the Zimmerman verdict are akin to an adult crying over the fact that there is no Santa Claus. One has to be intoxicated by the fantasy of a post-racial world and inured to the gravitational pull of the Black trope to think otherwise.
Again, Florida justice got it right. Zimmerman did not murder Trayvon. He did not even see him. Trayvon was not fully human to George Zimmerman, or, apparently, to the jury. Therefore, a black trope has been slayed. Case closed.
Except a decent young man is dead. Dead because he could not say to George Zimmerman, “Hey! It’s me. Trayvon.”
Dr. Vorris L. Nunley is the author of Keepin' It Hushed: The Barbershop and African American Hush Harbor Rhetoric. We encourage readers to respond and comment. In keeping wtih the rhetorical vision of his "Cicero's Tongue" column, Professor Nunley will share some of and respond to the reactions in the next installment.