Thursday, July 4, 2013

I know Rachel Jeantel

photo by ABC News

I know Rachel Jeantel.  Well, I don't really know her personally, but I know of her because I have taught many students like her when I taught in an inner city high school.  Over the years I taught many girls like Rachel Jeantel, and they have been given the unfair image of the obese, ignorant, uneducated 'ghetto girl.'  This is not who Rachel Jeantel is.

Rachel Jeantel is the friend of Trayvon Martin, killed by George Zimmerman, on that fateful night in Sanford, Florida when Trayvon was walking home from a local 7/11 store after buying some candy.  She is the last person to talk with him before he was killed and overheard some of the confrontation between Trayvon and George Zimmerman before the killing.

I have found Rachel's testimony of that night to be truthful and compelling.  She is a lovely, soft-spoken young lady who was trying to tell her story, her truth, in court so that the jury can make a judgment and decision on George Zimmerman's stand that he killed Trayvon Martin in self-defense.

All people have done is to tear her down and negate her testimony because she was difficult to hear and to understand.  Yes, she had trouble articulating her story.  But, that I blame on the prosecution attorneys for not preparing her for testimony in court.  Yes, Rachel was out of her league and comfort zone sitting on the witness stand in court.

And, never has the cultural divide between African-Americans and whites been so evident as when the defense attorney, Don West, challenged her testimony on cross examination.  He demeaned and humiliated her, even asking if she understood and could read English.

No, Rachel could not read cursive writing.  That is true of nearly all inner city students today.  That is even true of many other students today.  With everything being done on computer in school nowadays, keyboarding has taken over cursive writing as the way to communicate in written form.  I am typing this as I compose this essay, I am not writing it first in cursive writing and then typing it.  This is how the world of computers works today.  There is not as much need for cursive writing as there was when I was a child or even when I was Rachel's age. (19 years)

The world has changed, as Chief Justice Roberts has so eloquently and gently nudged us to realize in his recent opinion written on the civil rights laws of the 1960's.   But, the attitudes of an older white male towards a large African-American woman from the inner city have not.  That is the problem and the disconnect between Rachel Jeantel and Attorney Don West, as well as the attorneys for the prosecution.

No, cursive writing is not necessary to inner city students as it was in the 20th century.  Hello folks, we are now in the 21st century and 'the times they are a changing.'  Also not realized by many whites in this country is the vernacular spoken by many African-American students today.  Even, as their teacher, I was always playing 'catch-up' on the current slang they spoke.  Many times I had to stop my lesson and inquire as to what an African-American student meant when he/she used a word such as 'cracker.'

Yes, in my students eyes, I was a 'cracker.'   Was that a racial slur against me?  Not in my students' eyes.  Inner city African-American's do not consider the word 'cracker' to be racial or a racial epitaph.  I have had many discussions with them about this word.  So when Trayvon Martin called Zimmerman a 'crazy *** cracker', in Trayvon's and Rachel's world that was not a racial slur.  I do realize many whites may not consider that so.

Understanding the cultural divide between whites and African-Americans needs to be bridged before passing judgment on Rachel Jeantel as inferior to the rest of us.  She is a young woman who speaks three languages, one of them English, and I (also an English teacher as well as a Spanish teacher) found her English to be very well spoken.  I have heard worse English grammar from African-Americans than Rachel Jeantel.  Her mother, who I understand is originally is from Haiti, speaks Creole French, the native language in Haiti, and that was the language spoken at Rachel's home, so this is the first language Rachel knew as a child.

I believe Rachel also speaks Spanish.  So here is a multi-lingual young  African-American woman.  How many young, white women Rachel's age in America are multi-lingual?  Not many, I can attest to.

Although Rachel was nervous and unsure of herself, she is not stupid, ignorant or uneducated.  We must take the time to know someone and to help them in situations new to them as testifying in court was new to Rachel Jeantel.  If we don't  like Rachel Jeantel, it illuminates and says more about us (whites)  than about her.  Rachel was just doing her civic duty.