No one teenager ever lives wanting to be a martyr for an entire people and nation. But that’s what happened this past Sunday in a Florida church, where Jesse Jackson anointed Trayvon Martin as a martyr, and called for a movement in Trayvon’s name to alter the racist disenfranchisement of people of color within the American criminal justice system.

 
Trayvon’s name and face now flood the news and social media channels. What is perplexing is the fact that his image, in less than one month, has gone through combating iterations and narratives that seek to define and re-write Trayvon’s entire story. His likeness has been attributed commercially to Arizona Tea and Skittles. His name is listed as a “trending” and “hot right now” topic on numerous news sites. The depiction of his masculinity and blackness have undergone a series of shifts, from being portrayed in initial photographs as a smiling teenager in a Hollister t-shirt, to an athlete in a football uniform, to recent Facebook photographs of him shirtless, a grill replacing that smile, the evidence of tattoos on his arms, the shadow of a hoodie looming over his eyes -- all presented as if it has something to do with why he is dead. Trayvon has been made into a symbol with dual meaning; different depending on the media source that describes him; either an innocent martyr or an imposing, violent black man.

But this negotiation of narrative and image pinpoints the core issue of why Trayvon matters so much to America right now and forever. The death of Trayvon and the subsequent absence of justice served represent the collective trauma of racism in America. The movements and media frenzy surrounding Trayvon show that America continues to wrestle over how to have a legitimate conversation about race. This loaded moment resurrects memories of lynchings, race riots, church and house bombings, segregation and inequality by school, neighborhood and city, police brutality crimes, and prisons stacked with disproportionate numbers of men of color – none of which have ever found justice in our system. We refuse to forget that fact.

To a degree, it is unfair to place so much powerful meaning onto Trayvon’s name – he was just a teenager -- but his body carries that legacy. Even before his birth, the odds were against him. Trayvon would be judged a certain way, looked at twice a certain way, reprimanded twice. He would not be allowed to create and own the narrative of his very life. This tragedy continues to be played out every day in America, and not only to young black men, but to every young man of color -- Latino, Asian, American Indian, and Arab – every time we get labeled with words like “violent”, “illegal” or “terrorist.”