On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black teenager, was shot to death by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman as the teen returned home to a gated community in Sanford, Florida after buying candy at a convenience store. The young man was unarmed and wearing a hoodie at the time, those are the facts.
After that moment, the story gets more grey than black and white but one point has become a major discussion topic; Trayvon’s decision to wear a hoodie that night and how that piece of clothing criminalized him in Zimmerman’s eyes. News pundit Geraldo Rivera added to the fray on the “Fox and Friends” morning show saying, “I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was.” In response to Martin’s death and the Sanford Police’s resistance to apprehending his killer, protesters across the country, dressed in hoodies, have gathered to demand the arrest and prosecution of Zimmerman. Martin’s case and the hoodie’s new spotlight reminded me of something that happened to me years ago.
I was one of those babies born with hair and for the most part, I’ve never gone a day without it. My crown has boasted many shapes over the years, from my mother-approved low caesar as a child, to hightops, to fades with parts and even a long stretch with that Heavy D tapered Afro. Then one day I decided to grow out my mane, it grew fast, thick, and surprisingly curly. Women loved it, my mother hated it, I kept it.
Late in 2001, as my hair’s length neared the middle of my back, I cut it all off for no reason other than I needed a change. But that small difference was more spiritually charged than I expected. The day of my sartorial chop, my boys met me at the barbershop and each one took a turn snipping off a bit of my hair. The ceremony was funny until it wasn’t. I started hyperventilating and had to run out of the barbershop to catch my breath, my brain spun with thoughts of my past as I clutched my chest and gasped for air. When I regained my composure, I calmly walked back into the barbershop and told my boys, and every other man within earshot, that ‘My allergies were acting up.’
Until my hair grew back, I wore a kufi to hide my un-Michael Jordan-like head shape. I have respect for what the hat stands for and those who wear it but my intent for wearing the kufi was vanity. I did some research to see if it was only worn by those who followed the Muslim faith and asked a few of my Muslim friends if they minded my new fashion passion. All parties were all fine with the idea so I pulled on a kufi each morning.
Then September 11th happened. In the days following the attack of New York’s Twin Towers by terrorists, people stared at me, and the bold ones even asked for my thoughts on September 11th. No one was ever disrespectful to me but I think that had more to do with my size —I’m over 6 feet. I also think people assumed I was an African-American Muslim instead of a Middle-Eastern Muslim, which to them meant I wasn’t as guilty or directly connected to the terrible events of that day.
Not long after the towers fell, my boy and I went to a small movie theater in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and despite being located deep in the borough the thick smoke of debris and ash from the September 11th attacks had drifted over the bridge.
I arrived to find my friend clean shaven and thought nothing of his missing trademark long beard until he looked me square in the eyes with surprise.
‘You still wearing that Kufi?! I cut off my goatee so no one would mistake me for a Muslim,’ he said.
‘What the fuck?!’ I said.
He chuckled, I shook my head and we didn’t go any further with the conversation.
A few hours later my friend and I had seen all of the movies the theater had to offer and parted ways. As I descended into the train station to head home, an older middle-eastern man in his 60s came up the stairs to exit the station. He saw me and lit up, as if he had just seen a long lost friend.
‘As-Salāmu `Alaykum brother,’ he bellowed in a thick accent, walking toward me with wide open arms.
I was taken aback. I had never been approached with such a greeting by a middle eastern man in Brooklyn or anywhere else in the United States for that matter. Never.
‘Wa alaikum assalam,” I replied, as I accepted his embrace.
I didn’t even know I knew the proper reply to his warm greeting until the words spilled from my lips. He seemed like he was about to cry from joy in seeing me. His happiness was sincere and it made me feel his love and, at the same time, his pain. I knew why he was so happy to see me, he saw a friend when so many others now saw him as an enemy. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him I did not share his faith.
The whole exchange didn’t last more than five minutes but five trains passed before I could leave the station. I just sat on the train’s platform for an hour after the man had walked away, thinking about what that moment meant to both of us.
- Gardy V. Guerrier