Rachel Jeantel: You’d Better Let That Girl Alone
At first, I was let down by her. Then, I was put off. She had all the looks of a girl who knows the ‘hood, and that’s all. She was short, stout and dark, her straightened hair drawn up in a bun, with her big hooped earrings brushing her shoulders. Black dresses, we know, are slenderizing as well as the color of mourning. Her face reminded me of one of those African idols, or even one of those South American figurines from an Incan or Mayan age. At first glance, her neck seemed to be one roll of fat, but on further inspection, the roll seemed more like an untreated goiter problem; in other words, she may have a thyroid condition.
And when she spoke, she was standoffish, rude, impatient and nervy; her voice trailing off at times into an almost indecipherable mumble. It surprised me how young-acting she seemed for her age. Sometimes it did appear that she was speaking another language with her slang and street lingo, but I could understand her. The whites, particularly the defense, seemingly could not. But the judge could, being closest to her. (A fellow blogger who has lived in Florida related that many Miami black kids talk in this way.) Definitely, she had more respect for prosecutor Bernie De La Rionda and Judge Debra Nelson, who spoke calmly but firmly to her, than she did for the comedy team of West and O’Mara. Rachel could be soft-spoken and polite—and then she could be angrily direct. People–especially black people in the Twitterverse–began to call her “Precious” because of her size and her dark, black skin. Below is a presser called by Trayvon’s parents after Rachel’s testimony yesterday.
Subsequently, I began to step back from condemning her out of hand, to really pay attention to her. To stop blaming her for being who she was, to withhold final judgment that she could have thrown the case to Zimmerman. I had to shed my class contempt for who she is and to really receive what she was trying to say and to appreciate what she was trying to do. Number one, she was there to testify that Trayvon Martin was stalked and then murdered by George Zimmerman. And number two, she was there to stand up for a friend she had known when they were both much younger, and going to the same Miami elementary school. They had only reunited last year before his death, on her birthday, February 1. She was not his girlfriend; rather, she was one of his friends. Since Trayvon’s murder, this teenager’s life has turned into one big living hell, and as she said on the witness stand, it has not been easy.
I want to write you an apology for this whole world, even if it’s not my place to apologize. I’m so sorry that you’re sitting on the stand right now, being interrogated like a criminal instead of another victim. I’m so sorry that people are judging you, fixated more on your beautiful brown skin, your carefully applied make-up, your body, your being, than your trauma and your pain. I’m sorry that you were born into a country where a man can pursue and kill a black boy, your friend, and go home the same night with the blessings of law enforcement officers. I’m sorry that you’ve been retraumatized, stigmatized, defamed, and attacked just because you were unlucky enough to love a black boy, to share time with him, to be the last one he ever called.
I’m so sorry for your loss.
Rachel Jeantel is Haitian American. She is probably among the first generations to be thoroughly, culturally assimilated as an African American, but her antecedents are from Haiti and the Dominican Republic. However, her first languages were French Kreyol and Spanish. To me, any African American who can speak (and/or read and write) in another language other than English is to be admired. Some children—black as well as white—in South Africa, for instance, can speak Afrikaans, English, and three tribal languages by the time they are ten years old.
But English is her third language, learned late in her childhood, and this may be part of her problem. She appears to have either a speech impediment or an impediment compounded by wearing braces on her teeth. At 19, Rachel still has not graduated from high school; she will enter her senior year this fall, which says to me that she has probably had to be kept back. In California, there is such a thing as continuation high schools, in which students who are at-risk or have learning disabilities are allowed to graduate at a slower rate than their contemporaries; I wonder whether she is doing the same in Florida.
Because of her poverty and coming from an immigrant background, she may not have gotten all of the instruction and the encouragement and support soon enough to make a comfortable immersion into English. (Word to the wise: Rachel is not indicative of all Haitian Americans or of Haitian immigrants. She has her own story, as do many others.) And school systems for the poor are not the same as school systems for the middle class or the rich. It’s catch as catch can, and even worse if English is not your parents’ language either, and there are no interpreters available to translate concerns to teachers. One result is that Rachel cannot read or write cursive, which made a lot of us realize to our dismay after some research that cursive handwriting is not taught any more in schools; that it is being dropped in state after state, another victim of the keyboard. That change in curriculum is not her fault. Yet some other, more prosperous, whiter school districts and private schools are keeping cursive handwriting courses. Wonder why?
And I have no doubt that she did what many children do in the face of such insurmountable drawbacks. She gave up, or did whatever she could do in order to move forward or to graduate, in order to fit in somewhere. And she wasn’t interested in some things in favor of others. What fills the gap is a preoccupation with clothes, fingernails and hair, junk food, texting from morn till night, music, trying to be cool, and keeping up with the reality shows and parties. Yep, she drinks, and she smokes dope, but this is…normal for teenagers nowadays, whether they are honor students or not. Wrong, but normal. This is what fills the gap for many teens these days regardless of color or of class. Only a few students seem drawn towards the academic or intellectual life these days, and striving towards college seems to make these kids more goal-oriented and mature in certain respects than others at the same age. Which is another reason why I went, huh? when I saw Rachel. I liked all that too when I was young—clothes, movies, The Jackson Five, Mod Squad—but I wanted to go places and to do things, and I wanted a college degree. I liked to read. But she is not me. If she gets to junior college to learn a skill—whether as a cosmetologist or as a pastry cook, and finishes—it will be momentous, a step up in the right direction.
Just because someone is ignorant and does not know how to act in public does not mean that they are stupid. Slower, yes. Out of her depth, yes. Untrained, yes. Limited in access to resources, yes. But not stupid. I repeat: lack of knowledge does not necessarily translate into a deficit in intellectual capacity. Learning disabilities she may have, but Rachel Jeantel is not, repeat, IS NOT STUPID. Not with knowing how to speak French Kreyol and Spanish and negotiating the minefield of English as a third language with defense attorneys who are hell bent on trying to prove that she lied about everything on that fateful night, and that she was coached to say what she said by Trayvon’s bereaved mom. Rachel Jeantel was not on trial, and neither was the dead Trayvon Martin.
To be clear, Jeantel simply speaks like someone with a southern drawl—but the courtroom’s white administrators keep making references to her black vernacular as she tries to explain one of the most tragic experiences in her life: the loss of Trayvon Martin, whom she first met while in second grade. Zimmerman defense attorney Don West has been especially, and perhaps unethically, harsh on Jeantel—repeatedly leaving the podium, approaching Jeantel, and berating her with scheduling and procedural questions that are legally outside of his purview. He’s been reprimanded on several occasions by the judge, often for incessantly asking the same question over and over again, despite Jeantel already providing a clear answer, and also for speaking over her.
Defense attorney West made a couple of cracks that stuck with me. One, that she was probably too involved with fixing her hair in the bathroom to pay attention to what was happening with Trayvon that evening. “Was the water running,” he snidely asked. I thought to myself, that this idiot knows isht
nada zip zilch about black hair care. Plus, she said that she had stopped fixing her hair and had been listening in the privacy that bathrooms can afford to what was going on. And then, earlier, that she must have been talked to the night before to better her testimony during the second day on the witness stand. This was a ploy by the defense to make her admit that the prosecution had coached her. Such a disclosure would have gotten the prosecution in hot water, as well as confirm their reaching conspiracy theory. She did not rise to the bait, saying that she went to bed that night and slept, punctuating her statement with a derisive sir that was repeated throughout the day.
That wasn’t all:
As West looked at her in utter disbelief, Rachel looked back, unwavering. How could he not understand that she couldn’t bring herself to upset someone who had just lost a child? Better yet, curse in front of adults [about the words “creepy ass cracker” that Trayvon had used to describe who turned out to be Zimmerman stalking him].
Note: Disrespect to elders in the black and especially Caribbean communities is almost as bad as cursing the Lord.
And speaking of that word “nigga,” the court might not understand Trayvon and Rachel’s casual use of the word because of how often, no matter how controversial, it is used in our communities.
So aside from the argument that we took the power out of a degrading word and made it into a term of endearment, it’s used so much that it’s become a substitute for identifiers such as “that guy,” or “him,” etc.
And for Don West to argue that the use of the word “nigga” was racial for Trayvon is incomprehensible, especially because he used it on a person who was not of African descent.
For Rachel, these little cultural differences get lost in translation. And instead of trying to understand her, people are reducing the miscommunication to semantics, what they call her broken “Kings English,” and her anger. Without even realizing that she comes from a home where Creole is her first language, or that her friend was killed just seconds after he last spoke to her. Wouldn’t you be frustrated in front of a court that refuses to understand you?
A stupid girl would have stumbled like someone on Perry Mason with something to hide. Crumpled like a wad of paper. Rachel stuck to her guns, to her truth about what really happened. West and O’Mara could not trip her up on the essential facts. A liar? Not Rachel.
Several times, West brought up the fact Rachel lied about her reasons for not attending Trayvon’s wake. “You. Got. To. Un. Der. Stand,” she told West, breaking up each syllable to emphasize her frustration. “I’m the last person—you don’t know how I felt. You think I really want to go see the body after I just talked to him?”
Rachel Jeantel isn’t a Hollywood actress. She’s not a trained professional. She doesn’t testify in court regularly. She’s a young black woman missing her friend. She showed up to court to give all the information she had as to what happened the night he died.
“Are you listening?” she asked West at highly contentious point her testimony where it seemed he had either lost interest or chosen to ignore the things she was saying. How many young black women could ask that question to the world daily? We should be listening more. We should hear what the Rachels of the world have to say. It’s unclear how Rachel’s testimony will affect the jury and the ultimate outcome, whether they’ll read her as hostile and uncooperative. No matter what, though, Rachel stood and defended herself and Trayvon (and frankly, many other black youth) against the condescension, against silencing, and against the character attacks. […]
1. Despite rumors that she and Trayvon were dating, Jeantel told the court that they had never had an official date and were “just friends.”
2. While talking on the phone to her, Trayvon told Jeantel that there was “a man following” him.
3. “He told me he looked like a creepy ass cracker.” Jeantel on how Trayvon described Zimmerman to her.
4. Trayvon then told Jeantel that he was going to try to “lose the man.” He said that he was going to walk home.
5. A short while later, he says to Jeantel “the nigga is still following me.”
6. Jeantel tells the court what happens after that. She told Trayvon to run and she started hearing wind. He told her he was going to get home “through the back.” The phone then shuts off.
7. She calls back and Trayvon answers. He tells Jeantel he is almost home. She can hear that he is out of breath. He tells her that he “lost” the man following him.
8. A couple of seconds after Trayvon said he lost the man, he says to Jeantel, “Oh shit, the nigga is behind me.”
9. She hears the first exchange between Zimmerman and Trayvon. Trayvon to the man following him: “Why are you following me for?” Jeantel she hears another “hard-breathing man” say “What you doing around here?”
10. She hears a bump, and grass sounds, like people are rolling around or the phone dropped on the ground. She asks Trayvon what’s going on and she hears Trayvon saying “get off, get off.” The phone shuts off again.
11. She tells court that she didn’t hear from Trayvon again. “I had thought he was by his daddy’s house so somebody would come help him. ” On Monday there was a rumor that he was killed. She didn’t find out it was absolutely true until a friend texted her an article.
12. She told the jury that she didn’t realize she was the last person to speak to Trayvon.
13. After being asked why she lied about attending Trayvon’s wake, she said that she “didn’t want to see the body.” She also added that she felt guilty that she was the “last person to speak to their son.” (Referring to Trayvon’s parents.)
So frankly, I think that the jury got her, just like a few whites who are moms and dads on black blogs and on the Justice for Trayvon Martin pages on Facebook who are listening and following the case on TV got Rachel Jeantel, for all the badgering and overreaching that West committed yesterday and the day before. And for all that, I think that folks had better respect this girl for what she did, not only for Trayvon and for herself, but for black youth all over and for black people in general. She is not what and who you think that she is. She is us, dragged into a horrible situation none of us can fully comprehend, and that she refused to be beaten down in nearly six hours of repetitive questioning. She hung on to her truth. So in conclusion, I think that yall had better let this girl alone. You have no idea what in hell you are talking about. This is real life, not some movie.
- “I don’t understand you. I do understand English.” – Rachel Jeantel (thecbft.wordpress.com)
- Courtroom drama: Rachel Jeantel vs. Don West (local10.com)
- Lolo Jones Mocks Rachel Jeantel On Twitter: ‘Madea Goes To Court’ [OPINION] (newsone.com)
- ‘Cracker’ Means Something Entirely Different In Florida: A Source Of ‘Pride’ (mediaite.com)
- Dark-skinned and plus-sized: The real Rachel Jeantel story (salon.com)
- Rachel Jeantel Twitter Commentary: Olympian Lolo Jones Stirs Controversy With Criticism Of Teen (huffingtonpost.com)
- Rachel Jeantel Explained, Linguistically (ideas.time.com)
- Dark-skinned and plus-sized: The real Rachel Jeantel story (soulbrotherspeaks.com)
- Mirror, Mirror on the Stand: Rachel Jeantel and Social Identity (integralnirvana.wordpress.com)
- Rachel Jeantel’s inability to read cursive leads to articles about why we’re even teaching cursive anymore. (althouse.blogspot.com)