In Attacking Trayvon’s Friend Rachel Jeantel, Black Folks Are Taking It Too Far

By NICK CHILES

I had a Kennedy-Nixon 1960 debate moment as I monitored the George Zimmerman murder trial on Wednesday. After reading the published online reports on the testimony of Trayvon Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel, who was speaking on the phone to Trayvon just before Zimmerman killed him, I got the impression that the 19-year-old Jeantel had delivered a legal slam dunk, offering irrefutable testimony that Zimmerman was stalking Martin that night and was clearly the aggressor in the confrontation—putting huge holes in Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense. But then I ventured onto social media and started reading commentary from black folks on Jeantel’s performance. Across the web, people were tearing into this teenager, saying she was ill-prepared, inarticulate, attitudinal and downright awful.

It was similar to the vastly divergent impressions television viewers and radio listeners got of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, the first televised presidential debate in history—with folks listening on the radio thinking Nixon had won the debate while folks watching a sweaty, pale and uncomfortable-looking Nixon (who refused make-up) on television thinking Kennedy had won.

I went back and watched some of the footage of Jeantel’s testimony. I could see why some observers might be disturbed that the teen wasn’t able to express herself more clearly. At times she was barely audible, she didn’t always use standard English and she sometimes didn’t seem to understand what the lawyer was asking her. It can be painful for us to see inarticulate black folks propped up on a national stage, speaking to a mixed audience with an unpolished tongue—particularly when words like “creepy-ass cracker” and “nigga” are freely tossed into the mix, words that Jeantel told the jury that Trayvon used to describe Zimmerman to her.

It reminds me of the way my parents described their pain and cringing embarrassment whenever boxing great Joe Louis was being interviewed on television and he would give the English language a vicious beating. We have a desperate need to want to always put our best selves forward. If you are in a position representing the whole of black America—and let’s face it, any black person being covered on a national stage still represents each of us, as much as it hurts us to admit it in 2013—every syllable you utter is going to be vigorously scrutinized. With social media, the scrutiny is going to be magnified like an electron microscope. [Exhibits A, B and C: Charles Ramsey, Sweet Brown and Antoine Dodson]

I understand all of that. But let’s not take this thing too far.

Rachel Jeantel is a teenager, a 19-year-old girl who told the world what she heard that fateful February night on the phone with her longtime friend Trayvon. From the news reports produced by the mainstream media, you got the impression that Jeantel was genuine and believable. Of course reporters from outlets like the New York Times, Miami Herald and the AP are not going to feel the need to describe Rachel’s attitude or overuse of black English vernacular, but they will feel compelled to describe the effectiveness of her testimony. And I saw them use words like “transfixed” to describe the all-female, nearly all-white jury’s reaction to what Jeantel was saying. Perhaps if the prosecutors had done too much coaching of their star witness, her genuineness would not have shone through.

I also saw incredibly mean things said about her looks on social media, even seeing her described as “Precious”—referring to the movie character brought to life by Gabby Sidibe, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of the troubled overweight teen. Disturbingly, this has become the go-to moniker for overweight, dark-skinned girls—aided by rapper Kanye West, who leveled that scarily ignorant line in his song “Mercy.”

Plus my b*tch, make your b*tch look like Precious

Jeantel had to live through a close friend being murdered, watching his killer walk free for far too long, then sitting in front of the world and recounting the painful night with an intimidating older white man directing questions at her while she’s clearly scared out of her mind.

Now, on top of all that, she has to endure some assholes critiquing her looks?

Really, people? Grow the hell up.

Rachel may not have been as polished on the stand as an actress on “Law and Order,” but from all indications she was effective. She was real. She was a 19-year-old speaking her mind, telling the truth. And that’s what she was supposed to do.

RELATED POSTS:

1. A Year Later, Trayvon Martin Stays Lodged in the Psyche of Black Parents
2. Teenager Killed in Florida by Neighborhood Watch Brings Terror To My Heart
3. Another Black Boy, Another Senseless Murder When Will It Stop?

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Nick Chiles

Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, including the upcoming "The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path To American Leadership," which he co-authored with Al Sharpton.

22 Comments

  1. I agree, any criticism coming her way concerning her grammar or choice of words is completely irrelevant and frankly, immature. However, much of the criticism I have seen has not been what you mentioned in the article, but her demeanor towards the defense. The prosecution labeled her their star witness. After the litigation proceedings earlier today, I think that designation is now gone. The defense forced the jury to consider her credibility as witness 8, and it does not help that she showed a great deal of disrespect towards the defense upon hearing their various questions.

  2. I totally disagree that the jury discredited her. She came across as being totally genuine and her story never wavered. Unlike Mr. Zimmerman’s story of the events, she has been consistent.

    • Well her testimony DID waver versus her deposition. I neither believe nor disbelieve her. Don’t really trust her. If I were on the jury there would be reasonable doubt – enough for an acquittal.

  3. I loved seeing how real she was. Yes, she was a tad disrespectful to the defense, but the man wasn’t making it easy for her. Even I, at certain points, didn’t understand the questions he was asking! I understand that he’s trying to do his job and dissuade the jury of this “star witness”, but there were instances where the lawyer did take it to another extreme. Him reading back her testimony in her vernacular and choice of words, for example, is one of them.

  4. Ok i would have to agree with most of this article and no the way she looks should not matter, however in a court of law perception is everything. Going to court and going to Las Vegas are very similar, they are both a game of chance (should not be that way, but that is the way it is). Now as far as myself believe what she said to be true, I do believe it, and I understand why she acted the way she acted. However all that matters is the 6 women in the Jury box, and I would bet that at least 5 of them dont understand why she acted the way she did. Someone from the community need to help her get herself together and present herself accordingly. I know that most kids will never be put in the situation she is being put in now, but if she spoke and acted the way she acted on the stand in a job interview she would not get hired. Lets face it, how we look, how we dress, how we react, what we tweet, what we e mail, even how we show on our face what we think, it all matters. Especially in this case where everything she does is going to be analyzed. I do agree we are asking a lot of a 19 year old, but it comes a time that no matter what your age you have to stand up and take care of business. After all your friend was killed, dont you want to do everything in your power to make sure his killer was brought to justice. You mentioned how she must feel after he friend was killed. think of how she will feel if the jury says that we let him off because of how she acted, not because of what she said. Come on, she needs to get it together, and the people around her need to help her to get it together.

  5. I don’t think her vocabulary is the problem. It’s her attitude. Even people with poor grammar can display a better attitude than what she’s displaying. I know she’s in pain about what happened to her friend, but she also needs to understand that the trial NEEDS her honest, truthful and well delivered (as best as she can) account of what happened. THAT’s the issue, and that’s what worries me.

  6. She’s a liar who can’t read. How is she credible?

    • UppityBlackWoman

      She’s a witness who speaks three languages and doesn’t read American cursive well. That could be said of anyone who isn’t from here and some kids who were raised here since some schools don’t teach cursive anymore.

      Even if she were completely illiterate (she’s not by a long shot) that doesn’t means she can’t hear. And just because she doesn’t speak “white American” doesn’t make her stupid.

  7. The same black so called educated black women defensing this woman. Are the same black women that made fun of Charles Ramsey, make fun of the way rappers talk. SO when the black male is talking ghetto and hood, its ok to make fun of him. But when a black female is the one acting uneducated and ghetto, We black people must come to her aid.

    WHAT ABOUT the black female lawyer on zimmermans team?why dont black women call her out? if she isnt the biggest uncle tom ever.

  8. Once again. This confirms my theory… there are more immature people in the world than mature people. Hence the reason why social networks are not appealing. People no longer think about putting themselves in some elses’ shoes. Many people portray the “best parts of their life” through social media, one may believe that everyone looks like a cover model or everyone is suppose to look like a model. Please people, everyone has flaws and it is not up to anyone to judge them. Many of those who comment probably need to look into a mirror themselves. This woman is trying to defend a friend who has passed on and comments are made about her appearance…REALLY. In addition, if anyone knew what a trial lawyer goes through to prep their client, maybe they would have a different take. But many immature people only see things at face value.

    • I agree with you Melissa. The social networks will be many of our down fall. No, she is not the best speaker in the world, but she should try to take this case more seriously. Kill the attitude! We are trying to seek justice for a young man that was killed.

  9. I watched the testimony from beginning to end. I think she is a great representation of what a lots teens today look and speak (white,black, or hispanic). So what people don’t like her diction. Her roots are Hatian and Dominican, I didn’t hear anyone mention that. Maybe english isn’t her first language. The bottom line is yes she spoke softly, and yes she was testy; but what she wasn’t; was confused that Trayvon was watched, followed, AND Trayvon ran to get away only to find GZ smack dab in his face!

  10. Stand up for Rachel she is telling consistent truth no matter how she says it or re words it all equals the same thing. Trayvon was minding his own business and was followed, approached and killed by Zimmerman and Trayvon reacted as anyone one would being followed without reason by a strange person who must come across creepy …. … obviously having creepy thoughts about Treyvon …. Stand up for Rachel !!!! don’t let the media try to turn this around to be about how someone speaks !!!! Zimmerman planned to stop someone by any means necessary.. and in his zeal he chose an innocent person/boy .. He should pay for his crime b/c Trayvon already paid a bigger price.

  11. PREACH!
    I was so disturbed to see all of the hateful, mean, and demeaning tweets, posts, facebook postings about this young lady around the web. She’s 19 and a porduct of her environment. None of that is her fault. She is who she is and she lasted and maintained through two days of tough cross examination for her friend. We should be applauding her for that, and not talking about anything else.

  12. she is telling the truth shes not use to the abuse you can suffer on a witness stand. we blacks should not aire our dirty laundry so much . what ever we feel about what she says ,. “We” should keep it to ourselves , We know what they do with our information and we know what they do with our feelings.

  13. I have only seen bits and pieces of her testimony. And this what I say is that the the prosecution is more at fault that anyone. Regardless of the grammar, you do not and I dont care that she was on the phone with the TM in know way do you let the defense team see you sweat and be disrepectful. Good grief its their job to ask question a hundred different times, be confrontational and make you look bad, even if you are telling the truth.
    Again the prosecution did not prep her in my opinion. They knew they had a 19 year old for a key witness.

  14. Thank you for writing this post.

    I co-sign with all those who have thanked Rachel Jeantel & Trayvon Martin’s parents for their strength & commiserated with them for all that they have endured through this ordeal, including facing the plethera of hurtful & racist comments that are found in the social media.

    With regard to Rachel Jeantel’s testimony, I wonder if she misunderstood the defense attorney’s question as to whether she thought that “creepy ass cracker” was a racial term. Could she have thought that the defense attorney meant “racist?” If so, and if she considered “cracker” to be the same thing as “White” and she considers that calling someone White isn’t racist, it’s probably that Jeantel thought/thinks that calling someone a “cracker” isn’t racist.

    Also, I want to mention that I added a link to this My Brown Baby post in a post on my cultural blog. That post explores some linguistic aspects of the phrases “creepy ass”, “punk ass”, “bad ass”, etc. That post can be found at
    http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-meaning-of-ass-in-creepy-ass-punk.html

  15. And here we go. I 100% agree with you about those tearing into her that are of the same race. As a black woman, when I was watching I will admit to hanging my head at her choice of words at times but she was honest, truthful to a fault and you’re right, she delivered legitimate blows to the defense. The personification of her as ‘Precious’ is just as disappointing to me as if they called her something worse. She did her job candidly, she told the truth and lets not forget that she has also lost her friend.

  16. Forgive me for a minute while I catch some serious hurt feelings. I feel really bad for Rachel Jeantel. Not just because of the ridicule and the scrutiny, but because of the intense pressure. I think it’s wrong for people (especially the prosecution) to place the weight of this trial on her shoulders. I understand that this happens all of the time and that a lot of this is more about psychology than law. They are trying to reach those six jurors…but at the end of the day, why is SHE carrying so much responsibility to do that? I know the evidence is lacking. I understand that this is about trying to uncover motive. But I’m really not sure why her testimony was put under the microscope. What about the 911 operator that told Zimmerman to end his pursuit? When this goes badly, the prosecution deserves to be roasted, but it is unfortunate that their fumbles will mean that this family doesn’t get justice and that racial profiling will be shrugged off again.

    Furthermore, our treatment of Jeantel is telling. The hatred and vitriol she got from her own is (unfortunately) par for the course. Had she come in with her head held high, speaking perfect English and killing West with kindness, she would still be wrong. And her harshest critics would be those in the black community. She would still be blamed when this trial is not about her. She is a convenient scape goat, and she allows people (even black people) to perpetuate the myth that some people “deserve” the disrespectful treatment they get because of how they act, how they dress, how they carry themselves…etc. I would call it victim blaming, but in this case, she is just the proxy. People are embarrassed by her and what she “represents” to the world. Because (like always) we want to focus on presentation and not facts. We want to focus on Gabby Douglas’ hair and not her gold medals. We want to scrutinize her credibility and take attention away from Zimmerman’s. We want to focus on Jeantel’s attitude and not Don West’s shenanigans. I hope the judge and jury can see past all of this.

  17. I am sick of people defending mediocrity. The tragedy of the Treyvon Martin Case/Zimmerman Trial is that special interests and the media make it a point to accept mediocrity in public life, particularly in education, where the politicians are afraid of holding teachers accountable for student performances. And point of fact, Frederick Douglas and Malcolm X, both known for their great oratory skills, were self-taught in the face of actual racism and oppression. Shame on you all for giving the likes of Rachel Jeantel a pass, just because she is a young black woman who was a friend of Treyvon Martin. Ugh!

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