Askari and Me
Recently I had the honor of becoming a mentor through the Ella Baker Center’s Heal The Streets Youth Fellowship. My mentee, Askari is a confident, active, and attentive young man currently attending a local community college with aspirations of transferring to a four-year university.
Recently, the news of the Trayvon Martin case had me thinking a lot about Askari. Trayvon’s case is receiving worldwide attention with new details in this tragedy unfolding every day. What we do know is that Mr. Zimmerman shot 17 year old Trayvon because he looked suspicious. A young, black man in a hoodie, it turns out, translates to ‘suspicious’ for many in our country.
Askari is similarly a young, black man who often wears a hoodie. He also happens to be very confident and outspoken. I can’t help wonder how many times his confidence been perceived as arrogance, his actions as drug-induced, or attentiveness as paranoia due to guilt. Over the years, I myself have been perceived as a threat, danger, or cause for concern because of my appearance.
That tuesday, a vigil and march was called in memory of Trayvon Martin in San Francisco. Askari and I thought it would be a good idea to not just go to the march, but to go together. On the way, you could feel the tension in the air. Everything felt very serious because what we are dealing with is very serious, especially for those who look like Askari and me.
Once we got to the vigil, the mood was sad and a call to action unclear. I looked over at Askari a few times to try to get a sense of what he was thinking. He looked down a few times and looked back up almost trying to collect his thoughts. Many speakers reminded us of other times Black men have paid with their lives for being ‘scary’ or ‘suspicious,’ most notably Oscar Grant's Uncle Cephus Johnson. Oscar Grant was another unarmed black man who was shot to death in Oakland on New Years Day 2009.
As we joined the march, I got to talk Askari about his life, goals, hobbies, and passions.
“I’m a cook man. I can do whatever in the kitchen, people get excited when I get home so they can eat,” shared an animated Askari as we walked down Market St. while I looked down in shame realizing I could barely make a grilled cheese sandwich.
We laughed, we sang, and we talked all the way down to the San Francisco Civic Center. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how hard it might be for Askari to become a cook. Or at least much harder than it could be to end up imprisoned or shot. For his whole life, his value will be measured by others. And in this country, the value of a young Black man doesn’t seem to measure high.
But Askari has more optimism than a lot of folks I know. His bold confidence and heartfelt enthusiasm about life is contagious. He has an excellent critical thinking mind. I’ve had lively and fruitful debates with him on the various issues of our time. I hope and pray that these tools will carry Askari forward as he navigates this world.
I believe, and I think Askari would agree, that these are historic times for these United States. For many of us, Trayvon could have been your nephew, Oscar Grant could have been your brother, Shaima Alawadi your mother, Kenneth Chamberlain your grandfather, and Askari your mentee. Therefore, it’s more important than ever for households across America to talk about what is happening. To understand violence and hate, and to build tactics for resiliency to combat both. Only as we gain perspective and create strong networks of support can we move forward towards solutions, together.
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