What They Did to My Baby

A new memoir by Trayvon Martin’s parents lays bare the emotional costs of watching your child’s murder catalyze a social movement.

protest the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin
People chant at a rally in Los Angeles on July 16, 2013, organized by the ANSWER coalition to protest the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

When Sybrina Fulton learned that her son, Trayvon Martin, had been killed, she lay in bed for days, praying and crying. She thought about the fact that she would never again kiss her son, would never take pictures of his prom, see him graduate high school, or go to college. Initially, she recalls in the new memoir she co-wrote with Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, “I just wanted Trayvon’s body to be returned home so we could give him a proper homegoing service and burial.” Soon, however, Fulton and Martin found themselves at the center of a national controversy. Their efforts to find justice for their son had grown into something much bigger: Black Lives Matter. But few outsiders knew about the personal and physical toll this took on Sybrina Fulton, who began to notice a lump on her neck that turned out to be a potentially fatal thyroid disorder. While her doctor advised immediate surgery, she decided to wait until after George Zimmerman’s murder trial, realizing: “I needed to appear strong, even though I was physically suffering.”

Reading Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin, I found myself thinking of Emmett Till. Not the iconic photograph of his brutally beaten body in an open casket but of a haunting photograph of Mamie Till Mobley at her son’s funeral. She is standing by his casket, leaning forward slightly, grimacing in indescribable pain. Hanging on the open casket lid are three photos of Emmett Till, possibly taken Easter Sunday. He is wearing dark slacks, a white cuff-link shirt, and a black necktie with a single white stripe down the middle. Mobley’s eyes are shut tight. She is holding the edge of the casket, her fingers just touching the Plexiglas that protects Emmett’s beaten, bloated body. No mother is ever prepared or can ever imagine what it is like to bury her child. Mamie Till Mobley’s pain was amplified by having to lay to rest a boy whose chubby face she could no longer recognize. Yet what haunts me most about this image is knowing that, in this most intimate of moments, when her private pain could have been aided, however inadequately, by family, friends, and anonymity, Mamie Till Mobley made the bold choice to have an open-casket funeral. She chose to do so, she would explain, because “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.”

I have often wondered how Mamie Till Mobley came to make that choice. After reading Rest in Power, I can’t say that I have a better sense of her decision. But I do have a greater appreciation for the emotional and personal costs it must exact to have your child’s death catalyze a movement.

Rest in Power tells the story of Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, stable, middle-class black parents with no background in social activism. Fulton provides the book’s introduction and opening chapter; she and Martin then alternate chapters throughout. While Martin focuses more on the mechanics of the entire case, Fulton lays bare the emotional toll that the loss of a son can have on a parent. Having watched my own mother grieve for my teenage brother after he was shot and killed by a teenage boy who was never even tried for the crime, I would often sit silently, stunned by the weight of Fulton’s prose: “The truth had taken the breath and the life out of me. A darkness descended and everything ached: my head, my chest, my heart. … I had never experienced the piercing pain I felt in that moment, a hurt so deep it made me think my heart was going to come flying out of my body and explode in midair. It was true. Trayvon was gone. And I was in a very dark place.”

By their accounts, Trayvon was a normal 17-year-old boy. Which is to say, he made friends easily, loved to socialize, spent nearly every waking moment on his phone, slacked off in school, and was an occasional source of parental frustration—an experience so universal as to be unremarkable, if we didn’t know how the story unfolds. Midway through his junior year, in February 2012, Trayvon was suspended and went to spend a few days with his father in Sanford, Florida. While walking home from a convenience store in the rain, George Zimmerman stalked and chased Trayvon and ultimately killed him. He would claim he feared for his life. The police believed Zimmerman and did not arrest him.

Fulton and Martin each recount how they grappled with the loss of their son, and searched together for answers about his death, only to find themselves thrust onto the national stage. It is tempting to view them as acting heroically, though in doing so one risks losing sight of their humanity, of the fact that they never wanted anything more than to be parents of a hard-headed teenaged boy who, they prayed, would someday get it together.

This is possibly the most powerful takeaway from the book: For whatever Fulton and Martin may have accomplished, it is clear reading their story that these were black parents whom the racial state would neither allow to grieve nor express the full range of their emotions. Fulton recalls the demands that she speak publically about Trayvon and remembers thinking, “I was still grieving and just wanted to withdraw from the world that killed my son, instead of confronting it.” And while they may have been the parents of a murder victim, Tracy Martin soon realized that “we were black parents of a black teenager—whatever sympathy the general public had for us would vanish if we ever truly showed all the anger and frustration we felt.” To secure justice for Trayvon, they had to be stoic, endure hate mail and threats of physical and sexual violence, have their personal health decline to critical levels, and see their home transformed into a movement’s headquarters.

Rest in Power thus presents a historical paradox. In a recent stand-up routine, Dave Chappelle told a largely white audience about Mamie Till Mobley’s decision to have an open-casket funeral for her son. That tragedy, and that grieving mother’s impossible decision, Chappelle explained, set in motion a series of events that, decades later, allowed Chappelle to have one of the most politically trenchant comedy shows of all time. The audience clapped and cheered, leaving me convinced that few of them caught the hint of guilt in Chappelle’s voice, that he was neither thankful for Till’s murder nor Mobley’s sacrifice, though he fully understood that those events helped make it possible for him to do his art.

Had Trayvon Martin made it home that night, we might not have Black Lives Matter, the Movement for Black Lives policy platform, or even know names like Michael Brown or Philando Castile or Renisha McBride or Sandra Bland or Tamir Rice or Aiyana Jones or Jordan Edwards. If Trayvon’s death sparked a movement, if he has become the touchstone by which we gauge racial oppression and state violence in America, Rest in Power gives the impression that Fulton and Martin refuse to allow their son to simply remain a symbol. Fulton wants you to know about the doting 9-year-old who called her Cupcake while Martin would tell you that his son’s first word was outside. If with each new name that follows Trayvon Martin’s, we confront the relentless consistency with which America seems to insist on black death, his parents seem to insist that whatever their son’s legacy might be, it is his life, what might have been, that should inspire. She and Martin will not limit Trayvon’s life to a darkened passageway in Sanford, a callous state judicial system that waited 45 days to arrest his killer, or a white racial imaginary that convicted their son while setting his killer free.

In James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room, the main character, David, offers this compelling observation: “People can’t, unhappily, invent … their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.” In her final chapter, Sybrina Fulton recalls the moment when she refused to succumb to despair:

I knew the way I was going to channel the not-guilty verdict into something positive. I had to do something to help other mothers, women who, like me, had lost their children to violence, … to show that our grief doesn’t define us; it propels us to do something to bring change.

Sybrina Fulton’s decision to act, to say yes to life, represents the best possible response to the paradox in which we find ourselves. For this paradox demands that we acknowledge the powerful force of black social movements while recognizing that the costs are never only the lives lost but what it costs for those left to choose life.

Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin by Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin. Spiegel & Grau.

Read all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.