I'VE HAD many conversations with black men about our commonalities and our differences, about our joys and our pain.
But I've never had a conversation like the one I had with Tracy Martin, whose son, Trayvon, was killed in 2012, by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman.
Our dialogue was in turns funny and it was heartbreaking. But of all the things our conversation turned out to be, I am most grateful that it was real.
Coming on the heels of the third anniversary of Trayvon's death, and the U.S. Justice Dept. decision not to file civil-rights charges in the 2012 shooting, neither of us was sure what to expect. This was, after all, supposed to be the culmination of a campaign dubbed "Letters to Trayvon," a fundraiser to help other young men attend an educational event at Arcadia University called the Black Male Development Symposium.
But our conversation, held as we sat on a stage in front of hundreds of people, turned out to be much more.
I knew who 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was in death. He was a boy who wore a hoodie to guard against the rain on a February evening in Florida. He'd left the home of his father's girlfriend, who lived in a gated community, to go to the store for snacks. He was confronted by an armed man, a scuffle ensued and minutes later Trayvon was dead.
I did not, however, know anything about his life. That is, until I asked his father.
"Trayvon was born on a Sunday," Tracy Martin told me. "I was actually the first to hold him, besides the doctor, and to cut the umbilical cord. It's just amazing that God has given women the strength to birth something so beautiful.
"And it's funny, because he screamed, man, and the doctor was like, 'I haven't even slapped you on your backside yet.' . . . It's something that I'll never forget."
Memories like those have pushed him through the grief, Martin said.
He recalled the time he burned his legs badly in a kitchen grease fire. Trayvon, then 9, dragged his father to safety.
He remembered the days he and his son spent together at baseball fields and parks. He remembered the joy. And then he recalled the day he learned of his loss.
It was Feb. 27, 2012. Tracy Martin had filed a missing person report at 4:30 that morning. At 6:30, the police came to see him.
"It didn't dawn on me that the first person to introduce himself to me was the . . . he was sort of like the chaplain for the police department," Martin recalled. "And then the detective came up. He introduced himself. He said he was with the Major Crimes Unit. And it's not registering.
"So, he asked me did I have a picture of Trayvon. I told him, 'Yeah I had a picture.' I had just taken a picture of him and two more of my kids playing around two days before . . .
"He asked me when was the last time I'd seen Trayvon and what did he have on and he went through the formalities, and then he said, 'I'm going to show you a picture. You tell me if this is your son.' And he pulled out a picture, and it was him on the ground dead."
I was stunned into silence as I heard Martin recall the story. Eventually I asked him the question that any father would: What would justice look like in the death of your son?
"Justice for me?" he said. "A conviction and punishment for what [Zimmerman] did to my son. That would be justice for me, but I think justice for Trayvon would be for me and his mother to continue to do the work that we do. Continuing to get out and try to educate and trying to save lives and advocate against senseless gun violence and advocate against profiling and try to get some laws overturned. Laws that didn't work for us, but, hopefully, they'll work for other families. That's what justice for him would be."
As a father, I can only hope that justice will come.
Solomon Jones, whose column appears Tuesdays, is the author of 10 books. Listen to him mornings from 7 to 10 on WURD (900-AM). More at Solomonjones.com.