The media and intraracial respectability-nazis have crucified Rachel Jeantel for daring to exist outside of the paradigm of “respectable court etiquette.” The 19-year-old witness was the last person to speak to Trayvon Martin before he was shot and killed by volunteer neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman. Jeantel’s endured a brutal trauma, but instead of empathizing with her, critics scrutinize her speech, courtroom demeanor and weight.
The cultural conscience forgets Jeantel lost someone she loved and held with regard. This point was reiterated by the teenager’s lawyer, Rod Vereen, in an interview with the Tom Joyner Morning Show. Thousands of hearts broke when Vereen recounted how significant Martin’s presence was in Jeantel’s life.
Trayvon was one of the few guys, okay, and this is what, I mean, this ripped, tore my heart apart. She said he was one of the few guys that never made fun of me, about the way I dressed, about the way I talked, about my hair, about my complexion, you know, about my weight. And she said, so we communicated, because Rachel was, she was pretty much an introvert and so for her to be a 19-year-old young lady, who speaks three different languages. Now I hate to hear people talking, oh, she’s ignorant and she speaks three different languages, English being her third language.
Trayvon was a handsome little boy, all right? He was a cute kid. You know, and so here’s a young lady who’s infatuated the fact that somebody like Trayvon Martin befriended her and then she was just struck at the fact that their friendship was the way it was and they texted each other all the time. They called each other all the time, you know? And this is the way she communicated with them, you know.
I didn’t realize tears were cascading down my cheeks until I’d finished reading the interview. My mother immediately cried as I read Vereen’s words to her and my father hung his head with grief. Jeantel suffered a traumatic loss, a trauma I’ve never experienced, but I’m much-too-familiar with the grief of being uncomfortable in my skin.
I had C-cups, stretch marks and menstruation before sixth grade. I attribute my early development to the asthmatic steroids prescribed when I was eight. I needed the medication to avoid extensive hospital-stays in the winter, but when the sexual harassment began, I’d much rather breathe through an inflamed lung than face the lewd comments, stares and gropes.
Some males view females as objects in need of conquering. I was the animal in need of taming and a pack of teenagers thought it was their responsibility to reign me in. I’ll never forget what I was wearing: A red t-shirt, acid-wash jean shorts and cute red sandals. The teacher asked me to assist two male students with dumping the trash after an end-of-the-year celebration. As soon as went outside, one of them pinned my arms behind my back as the other began kissing my neck and grabbing my breasts. I screamed and cried, but nobody heard me.
It was the first incident in a series of similar violations. First it was two fifth-grade classmates. Then their older friends. And their friends. And their friends. I’d sprint from school as soon as the final bell rang, hoping I’d escape before the gang of hormonal teenage boys surrounded me. Sometimes I outran them. Sometimes I didn’t.
It was torture. Though my parents attempted to derail the harassment by reporting their antics to the school, the hormonal gang of teenage boys would still surround me during recess. I wasn’t taunted or teased for being overweight, but I hated living in the skin I was in. My dad told me I was beautiful every morning, afternoon and evening. He boosted my confidence daily, but it deflated as I was treated like an object by male classmates.
I turned the blame inward instead of faulting these teens for their actions. I dressed in hoodies and sweats, hoping my change of attire would keep them from harassing me. It didn’t. My parents transferred to me another school soon after seventh grade began, but the emotional damage never waned.
I learned to resent my breasts, hips and womanly curves. I hid underneath clothing too big and cringed when I passed a group of male students.
But like Rachel, I had a Trayvon. His name was Donovan. He was the first teenage boy I encountered that paid minimal attention to how I looked, but concerned himself with what I thought. How I learned. How I saw the world. He never groped, cornered or harassed me. We were never intimate and there was no attraction between us, but his kindness pulled me from a sinking hole of self-hatred.
He pulled me from the shell I’d retreated into. His friendship kept me sane. I couldn’t imagine losing him then, and can’t begin to fathom Jeantel’s pain.
In that regard, I am Rachel Jeantel.