Trayvon Martin's Family Can Teach Us All About What Dignity Looks Like

If Trayvon Martin hadn't been fatally shot in Sanford, Florida back in 2012, he would turn 21 this year, with all the possibility and uncertainty that faces a young person making their way into the adult world. That isn't what happened. Martin was slain by a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain who was ultimately acquitted on self-defense grounds. It was a horrible theft of life, followed by a great miscarriage of justice. But despite it all, Trayvon Martin's family continues to show resilience and dignity on a level that's sometimes hard to fathom.

For the record, you won't see the name of Trayvon's killer in this article, because it seems pretty clear he enjoys the attention. If you took another human being's life for any reason, whether a jury found that you truly acted in self-defense or not (as attorney and legal analyst Lisa Bloom expertly detailed in her book Suspicion Nation , the prosecution in the case turned in a very poor performance), one would hope you'd feel bad about it, or at least not want to garishly revisit it at every opportunity. In his case, it seems very much the opposite.

Trayvon's family, on the other hand, has been a stirring example of how to endure a horrifying tragedy (even more than a tragedy; a violation of personhood) and still emerge with a mind toward sparking positive change.

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That's not the only way people have to react in situations like this, to be clear. There is no "right" way to be a victim, and black Americans in particular face routine condescending and inhumane indignities throughout ordeals like what Trayvon's family has gone through — experiences which warrant righteous anger every bit as much as dignified stoicism.

The dehumanization of a teenager for acting, well, like a teenager, for instance. Or the initial reluctance of the legal system to act. The oft-racist smearing of a loved one throughout right-wing media. The constant deflections to disingenuous and inflammatory cliches like "black-on-black crime." The prosecutors who never seem quite as eager or as sharp at prosecuting as you might expect. And, of course, the suggestion that if the victim's family had only been more responsible in raising their children, maybe the whole thing never would've happened. In other words, blame the victims. The man who actually pulled the trigger decided to try this with Trayvon's family on Wednesday.

That all said, it's inspiring to see how Trayvon's family — specifically his parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton — have carried on. Sybrina is currently a high-profile advocate on the topics of gun violence and police shootings, and she's extremely engaged in the political process, having endorsed Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton in January.

And as Tracy discussed in an interview last month, he's currently devoting his energy to the Trayvon Martin Foundation, which is "assisting communities" in finding ways to reduce violence. He also said that the foundation has a funeral stipend program, so that kids from poor families who fall victim to gun violence can still receive proper burials. It's heartening to know that somebody out there is making those kinds of considerations, even though it does speak to a horrifying status quo.

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It also highlights why wanting high-profile victims of gun violence to speak out and become advocates should only ever be a request, never a demand. Having to clash against that status quo, as well as the trauma of such a huge personal loss, is the kind of decision a person can only make for themselves. Even moreso when there's such a stark racial aspect to the trauma. There's simply so much bile and vitriol slung at black Americans who dare to speak out that it's really unfair to put that pressure on somebody.

Victims of racism and violence should not be forced to act as their own advocates and champions. To the contrary, that's a job that should fairly fall to those of us with more privilege, more influence, and less heartache. But when people like Trayvon's family do decide to take up the challenge of staying publicly engaged, no matter how much disgraceful behavior is thrown their way, it should be appreciated for the heroism it is.