Trayvon Martin nativity scene co-opts Black erasure, urges victims to be “nonviolent, loving, [and] forgiving”

A (white) artist, John Zachary, has designed a Christmas manger for Claremont United Methodist Church in Southern California inspired by Trayvon Martin’s murder entitled “A Child is Born, a Son is Given”.

I don’t quite know how I feel about this artistic statement wrapped in a nativity scene, wrapped in an alter to a (post-Megan Kelly) white Jesus figure born (not killed) in a mythical manger; but this image [to the right] about sums it up. I’m inclined to think that the Trayvon-inspired manger co-opts anti-Black violence — a violence premised on the metaphysical origin story of the Black slave, who is imagined (at an ontological level) as always already fungible or disposable, especially if he is male and can be dismissed by a white supremacist society (or jury) as criminal or potentially criminal — in an attempt to respond controversially and graphically to trigger-happy Americans who argue that the Second Amendment is sacrosanct. The church sign accompanying the nativity scene reads,

“There is no better time to reflect on gun violence than advent, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Jesus was born into a state of total vulnerability as an innocent, unarmed child during a time of great violence much like Trayvon Martin.”

Zachary’s display in no way memorializes Trayvon’s death (though — following Saidiya Hartman’s critical insights in Scenes of Subjection [1997], from which this article inherits its title — the manger does spectacularize Trayvon’s death for white libidinal consumption); nor does it call attention to the gratuitous nature of his state-sanctioned murder; nor does it incite audiences to think critically about the fact young Black folk who look like Trayvon are being killed with impunity in numbers that we can’t even begin to calculate, not inconsequently because these Black deaths don’t register as (human) losses.

The Christmas manger doubles Trayvon’s erasure by rewriting the story of how he died — at the hands of a racist, ego-maniacal, wife-beating, would-be cop who was later exonerated for his (non-)crime through recourse to the same law that sent a Black woman to prison for 20 years (for firing warning shots at her physically abusive husband, no less) — as one about the triumph of forgiveness and nonviolence over insurmountable, gratuitous vulnerability [see image below]; which — according to the artist — is what Trayvon and Jesus Christ have in common.

Who, exactly, are we being asked to forgive in this message? Zimmerman (who is conspicuously missing from the nativity scene), or the legal system that responded to Trayvon’s death by returning the murder weapon to Zimmerman as a souvenir? Or are we being asked to forgive Trayvon for being Black in the first place and neglecting to anticipate the anxiety his Blackness would provoke? And who is the “we” in this message? Who is being asked to do the forgiving: a disaffected Black public, or Southern California Christians who mourn/clamor for Jesus (presumably by offering Trayvon up in this display as a sacrificial lamb)?

Zachary’s nativity scene and its accompanying text function to police potential (Black) violence, reflecting the initial panic that emerged after the Zimmerman verdict: a concern that the streets will run red with Zimmerman’s blood (and the blood of all white folks) if Black rage is not contained. The church sign above warns against “redemptive violence”, going on to note that the “a nonviolent, loving, forgiving victim is perhaps one of the most transformative and world changing assumptions of the Christian faith.”

Transformative for whom? A complacent and forgiving victim of white supremacist violence might be ideal for the Christian church and its bedfellows in power, but we must remember that “nonviolence”, “love”, and “forgiveness” — and other token sentiments that whitewash the horrific nature of Black erasure — offer little in the way of dismantling the white supremacist power structure that was set up (from the beginning) to kill Trayvon and those who look like him. We must ask why attempts are being made to quell Afro-insurgent demands before they start, perhaps by first admitting to ourselves (instead of pushing aside for fear of committing some kind of thought crime) that the world must end before we can “live” in it.

This analysis is written by M. Shadee Malaklou.

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