Trayvon Martin, “White” Worldview, and the Importance of Context and Culture
The other evening, I received an email from the author, and my friend, Dr. Gwen Fortune. She gave permission for me to re-post to my blog. Her perspective on language and meaning, within the context of the Trayvon Martin witness testimony of Rachel Jeantel, brings critical race, critical class, and critical age analysis that I have yet to see in the mainstream media depiction and interpretation of the trial.
From: Gwendoline Fortune <>
To: A. Breeze Harper <email@example.com>
Sent: Wednesday, June 26, 2013 5:30 PM
Subject: The important of context and culture
Reluctantly, I am preparing for another gross miscarriage of justice in the American judicial system. Beginning the, undoubtedly, confrontational and confounding task of observing the George Zimmerman trial, I watched and listened to the young woman, Rachel Jeantel, who was on the telephone with Trayvon Martin just before Zimmerman shot him, being interviewed. Within five minutes I discerned that the young woman, age 19, is of modest intellect and achievement, from a community that probably is “labeled” working class. She is not unintelligent! She is a product of her environment. It is amazing to read and hear the opposite of what SHE said, transcribed in the media. She said they were not boyfriend and girlfriend, but friends. Much is being made of Trayvon’s comments to her of “creepy-ass white cracker “and,” The nigger is” following me. These were not racial epithets said to Zimmerman, but the way in which black kids talk to one another in their own territory.
What is needed and will not be recognized is the cultural difference between this woman and her adversaries in the court. The situation is one that demonstrates a persistent duality in American society. Seriously, the use of a language translator would be appropriate. Although the language of Zimmerman’s attorney and that of Miss Jeantel sounds as if it is the same, it is not.
I remember deliberately speaking a form of Chicago black ghettoese to a young community representative and not having my white suburban middle-class students able to decipher the two or three simple sentences exchanged.
The attempts by Zimmerman’s attorney to trap the young woman in his “standard American legal jargon (argot)” made me want to grab him by the neck (I mean b@###) and throw him out of the court. The young woman explained that she had lied about her age, because she did not want to be involved with the law. She explained that she did not go to Trayvon’s wake and service because she felt guilty for her having been the last person to speak with him, and her concern for his parents. I saw the taboo of seeing a dead body in her comments. She mentioned that her mother was out of the country at the time of the killing. Her heritage is Haitian. She grew up speaking Spanish and Creole. I hear other than “standard” US cultural influence (read “white”) as well as class and caste differentials. Within cultural context I comprehend what she is saying and why. She said that she does not watch “any news,” but she is conversant with TV shows. She referred the court to a show “48…” as why she didn’t contact law enforcement. “They always call you,” she said. When the only knowledge of an institution–legal or other–is formed from exclusively watching TV entertainment, her inquisitor, trained in the legal system, is not able to comprehend her world-view, language or affect. I observed the defense–and later TV commentators–to be totally off the mark in interpreting the woman’s testimony. Being able to understand something of the actuality of her perspective, perception, and experience, I find her report of the final hour of 17 year old Trayvon Martin completely credible, while the western-white court and media judge her testimony on the basis of a world-view, as alien as any two widely separated cultures.
The commentator Toure tried to get some of this viewpoint across to a white woman commentator a bit earlier. Cultural difference was totally missed–denied by the woman commentator–not a woman of color. . THEY cannot hear what is being said–on the terms of the witness. Knowing the makeup of the jury I hope that the prosecution has a bridge over these troubled waters or Trayvon Martin will not get justice.
I compare this trial, so far, with the indulgence given to Jodie Arias a few weeks ago; this was a young, white woman who is obviously emotionally and mentally in arrears. Her lies were obvious; still she was able to bamboozle one jury member away from the death penalty in the sentencing phase of the trial. I am not in favor of the death penalty. but seeing how Miss Arias ruled the court, and one of her expert witnesses, a woman psychologist who was taken in by her, was amazing. She was attractive–by European standards–and an articulate liar, who was allowed to remain on the stand for 18 hours.
Unless some “expert” who is knowledgeable in cross-cultural affect is allowed to testify, the accurate testimony of this important witness will be lost in the misapplication of a majority culture norm, against an equally valid minority culture norm. How is this to be accomplished? During a long lifetime of observing equal and similar unawareness of cross-cultural validity is the reason for my refusal to acquiesce in the matter of “a jury of one’s peers.” No one in a controlling role in that Florida courtroom is a PEER of Rachel Jeantel. If Zimmerman is judged “Not Guilty,” it will be due to socio-cultural-historical ignorance, as well as conscious and unconscious manipulation by ruling power.
Gwendoline Y. Fortune, Ed. D.
About Dr. Fortune
A native of Texas, with paternal roots in the Carolinas, Gwendoline Alpha Young Fortune has lived most of her life in Illinois.
Gwen Fortune’s intent and goal are to share perspectives on American life that differs from the stereotypical model of people of color. BA elementary teaching, grades 4-8. H. C> Smith U, cum laude. MS, Social Science, South Carolina State University. Master of Philosophy Roosevelt U. Ed. D. in Higher Education from Nova U. She began college at Bennett College, continuing at Juilliard School of Music. Courses: U of MA, Michigan State U for study-tours in Africa and China. Taught: Chicago Public Schools. Instructional Team Coordinator/LASS teacher, Old Orchard Junior High, Skokie, IL. Professor of History