I don't mean to expose my dear father, who I had come to terms with before he died. But I've always been amazed by that remark. What could he possibly have been thinking? Was there a nuance I was missing? How could he so delude himself that he could see such a distinction? And what exactly was it that he hated or, more accurately, feared so much?
Baldwin's essay has helped me understand that moment. Because one thing you learn about James Baldwin when you read him is that he's not a hateful man. Maybe it's because he was a homosexual -- or maybe that just came as part of the baggage he accumulated in life from insisting, like a Walt Whitman before him, that he was going to walk the Earth courageously without relinquishing a love for everything that lived and breathed. In Baldwin's case, it was certainly a Christian love steeped in the Bible.
In the end, I decided to see that final phone call as an exchange between an aged father and, by-then, a well-read and experienced prodigal son with whom he had squabbled since the kid was a teenager working with black fruit pickers in the summer -- and liking them.
I think he realized in that final phone conversation that he had hung himself with his own rope, and in the pregnant pause between phrases he had desperately tried to work his way out of the noose. He did that by distinguishing between being a "racist" and "hating" a class of people.
The former term has become over the decades a social epithet that connotes a pariah status. Being a "racist" in America today is even a bad thing for the farthest right conservative. So he did not want to be branded with that label; he did not want his liberal middle son to attach that label to him. And I should say my father was complicated; there was a black man named Clarence who was a janitor at the University of Miami Medical School who my father really liked. The man and his brother once came down and put a new tar roof on our house. I remember being amazed that the old man seemed to really like this guy.
All this simmered in me as I watched the Zimmerman trial, bouncing back and forth evenly between MSNBC and Fox News.
The trial seemed so incredibly inadequate and absurd to me that I planned to write a "modest proposal" essay in the form of a memo to the attorney representing New England Patriots star tight-end Aaron Hernandez, a University of Florida football hero charged with one gun murder and suspected of at least two others. I was going to suggest to Mr. Hernandez's lawyer that he study the George Zimmerman defense, especially the notion that you can declare justifiable homicide when you shoot someone you had exhibited hostile intentions toward. If that person defends himself from your aggression, it's OK to shoot him dead. And since the guy's dead, he can't testify.
"Look, it was like this. The guy was on the ground and he tried to kick at me. Hard! I feared for my life. I had no choice. It was me or him." Hernandez might even do like George Zimmerman did with Sean Hannity and cozy up to Christians by saying the way things turned out was part of God's plan. With some high-priced lawyering using histrionics and maybe even a rubber dummy with a kicking leg it's not out of the realm of possibility to wedge open some key reasonable doubt space to set loose in the jury's mind so they must arrive at an acquittal.
This is America. The land of opportunity. Do it right, and you have a good shot that Hernandez will walk. Unfortunately, the trial will be in Boston, a place now famous for FBI-protected killer celebrities like Whitey Bulger. It's not Florida, a place where a killer can stand his ground and walk free.
But to realize what a really spooky place Florida is and what a crap shoot justice can be there, all one has to do is consider the all too real 2012 case of Marissa Alexander, a 31-year-old mother of three living in Jacksonville. Alexander had a protection order against her husband who had assaulted her in the past. One day in August 2010, to protect herself as he chased her around the house, she fired three rounds into a wall. Florida State Attorney Angela Corey -- the same woman who oversaw the ineffectual prosecution of George Zimmerman -- said Ms. Alexander, who is African American, was treated differently from Mr. Zimmerman because when she fired her weapon her kids were in the room.
No wonder comedic noir writers love the state so much.
Maybe there is some brilliant legal analysis from Ms. Corey to come whether if Ms. Alexander had decided to shoot her husband between the eyes she might have been able to successfully argue to a Florida judge and jury that she was standing her ground. I'm not holding my breath.