Our New Crucifix (the legacy of Trayvon)


{Note as of 12/4/2014: I wrote this post long ago. However, I must clarify the concept of “crucifix,” as opposed to “martyr.”

If you look at Roman history…anyone could be a crucifix. criminals. sons of god. former kings. They didn’t necessarily choose to die. However, in their death, they showed the power of the government that killed them. This is different than a martyr who usually made a statement of conviction before their death. When you kill a 12 year old Black boy playing with a toy gun, there is no way that this child can make a statement about anything. But the image of his death (his crucifix) showcases the power that allowed his murder.}


I’ve never understood the importance of the crucifix in theological or symbolic terms. Why must we keep the tortured and the dead hanging up to be fetishized?

Crucifixion as key social symbol is not limited to Christianity.

The recent announcement of the “not guilty” verdict in the George Zimmerman murder trial has left many of us more confused about what race means as we move forward in the 21st century. Zimmerman, who is the product of one Latino parent and one White parent, was accused of murdering a young Black man, Trayvon Martin. I can’t go a whole day without a message flashing across my iPhone with something related to the jurors or an impending investigation by the Department of Justice into whether Martin’s civil rights were impeded. Just today, CNN flashed a message across my phone about the President Obama’s declaration that Martin could have been him “35 years ago.”

Fellow anthropologist Orin Starn wrote a book titled The Passion of Tiger Woods in which he tackles the volatility of race in the American media. Among his major points is that Tiger Woods morphed from the symbol of a “post racial” American society in the early 2000s to a hip hop gangster, Tupac-esque image after his very public break up with his wife about a decade later. Like Woods, and Tupac before him, the images of Trayvon (and Zimmerman) constantly morphed as the media busily attempted to capture the truth behind what happened the night Martin was killed. Was Zimmerman “a white man” who killed “a black man.” Do we somehow make Zimmerman a “Latino” for the sake of justifying his claims of self-defense?

Reading comments on websites over the last year left me quite aware of the ways that the dead Martin and the alive Zimmerman coexisted in our imaginations. As Martin became a young Black thug, Zimmerman became a racially ambiguous person who successfully and legitimately defended himself. However, as Martin became an innocent young American teenager who was simply walking back from a gas station with Skittles and iced tea, Zimmerman became a biracial oddity who couldn’t become a legitimate police officer.

Whatever the case, whoever these men were, certain images of them are forever captured within a social apparatus that has morphed peoples into particular commodifiable mascots that are fought over and projected as powerful symbols in their death. Powered by Facebook, website forums, and other social mediating tools, our 21st century conversations about race illustrate how race (and, by extension, “racism”) is no longer a set of experiences in private lives that are matched by a powerful social conversation about overcoming (i.e. Civil Rights). No, racism is made public by particular crucifixion symbols. From Emmett Till, to Crazy Horse, to Martin Luther King Jr., to Trayvon Martin. We hang them up to speak indefinitely about a large sense of sacrifice and salvation that ushers us into the future where race may not be such a big deal. But race continues to be a very big deal.

The flexibility of golfer Tiger Woods’ identity within popular culture showcases how his image – his body – is used to express larger societal concerns. For Tiger Woods, supreme success allowed extreme public depictions of racial pedigree as his body and reputation blended together in stories in major publications from Vanity Fair to Time Magazine. “Good” Tiger was depicted through pictures of his multi-phenotype family. However, in his fall, Tiger was made into the sacrificed one. “Bad” Tiger was alone, and his body illustrated (for certain people) a certain fear of Tiger that we ought to have. Nevertheless, Tiger was our guy. The media and the public wanted him to make a come back. We wouldn’t allow segregation to happen anymore. And Tiger was the symbol of that.

But Tiger as crucifix might be hard to understand unless you remember who enjoys the power of his image. He is not the vulnerable young Black man who died. He is the symbol of changes in how a multi-cultural American public expects race to work. However, in many ways, those little boys who look like Tiger but don’t have Tiger fame occupy a perpetually segregated golf course…full of briers and unkempt…one that Tiger doesn’t play on. It contains extra police and very few second chances. It is perceived by everyone (including those playing on it) as disorderly and up for grabs. It is a site where there is very little chance for redemption. It is not part of the positivist multicultural future.

Trayvon Martin was walking on this golf course the night of his murder. His image after his death was not alive and vibrant like that of Tiger Woods…it was bound in ambiguity and skepticism. Dead Trayvon Martin will forever be seen in his hoodie. We have very few images of Trayvon besides those where he is throwing up two middle fingers. Like Native Americans, he is left stoic and at the mercy of very coercive, manipulative suggestions concerning his intentions on the night he died.

I remarked to my good friend (a Black man) recently that you can begin to see how Native American people feel when you consider how the murdered Trayvon is left hanging as token for all to ponder. Narratives of racism in Trayvon’s death are overshadowed by the multiple stories of what Trayvon means to others who are living.  The Black Church has one interpretation. The liberal media has another. The conservative media has another. Trayvon’s image was shown to exist in multiple forms, as a crucifix interpreted by many people in many ways.

I am concerned about the make up of the jury at Zimmerman’s trial. In the early 20th century, courts in the U.S. South provided verdicts that were obviously biased against non-White people.  Does it make sense that Zimmerman’s jury was all White (with one Latino)? Not really. But we must understand that dead men tell no tales, and we live in a society strongly defined by Black, Latino, and Native American dead men.

I noticed two young Black boys (each around 17 or 18 years of age) in Washington DC. One of them wore a Washington Redskins shirt. The other wore a shirt with a picture of Trayvon in a hoodie. The symbols, for me, carried equal weight. Each image – each mascot – was a rallying call in one way or another. One used the image of a racist caricature to unite a community around a team. The other used the image of Trayvon in his hoodie to rally a nation.  Each spoke to justice unfulfilled. Each was silenced by institutions of finality. Trayvon sits stoic as his justice was determined by Zimmerman’s trial. The “redskin” sits stoic as the focal point for a nation that murdered or committed genocide against most of Native America.

(In Oregon, in the continued national debate over Native American mascots, a state representative made an argument against the changing of Indian mascots in high schools by saying that we shouldn’t have to change so much to appease so few. Supposedly, it would take around $600,000 to change the Indian mascots in a certain school district to something else. If this line of logic was used more widely, we wouldn’t spend money seeking justice for individuals who are murdered. We would simply say that one dead person (and their family) does not require the efforts and resources of local governments.

But we don’t say that.)

So as you see the emergence of Tiger Woods in his post-divorce golf career, and as you compare this with the remembrance of Trayvon, consider how race and racism are contained within symbols floating through our everyday lives that we buy into. In not having the power to speak of the importance of the dead, we wear them like two boys in Washington DC. But why? Maybe we should ask why these two boys were not wearing Tiger Woods tshirts. Can two black boys in the middle of crime ridden DC rally around Woods’ image? No, the dead seem to tell the truth…the whole truth. They are better symbols. They are a better crucifix. The tortured and the murdered are highly valuable within a larger societal context where the crucifix (in its various forms) helps us speak.

If Trayvon is our new crucifix, what happened the night he died is indicative of the sin that haunts our human experience. Our search to find justice for Trayvon (if that is what we are searching for) must be attached to an equally important search to understand why we remember the murdered like we do.

Trayvon is remembered in many ways, and we would be wise to ask ourselves how the image of Trayvon is in the league of other great crucifixes. He isn’t Jesus, but he is important in this moment. Like Jesus, his story can be told in thousands of ways. We may not know the conditions of his death. Zimmerman may be exonerated. Nevertheless, we must listen to the many different ways that Trayvon helps different people explain their varying circumstances and positions within the United States.


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