Rachel Jeantel: Mad Broken English

On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Benjamin Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman. For those that spent the last seventeen months in solitary confinement, or aboard the International Space Station, Trayvon was returning home from a store carrying -what has now become the legendary details of this tragic event- a can of Arizona Iced Tea and a bag of Skittles when Zimmerman spotted him walking through the Sanford, Florida apartment complex where Trayvon’s father resided. Prior to Trayvon being shot with a Kel-Tec nine millimeter pistol loaded with hollow tip bullets, he was on a cell phone talking with his friend, Rachel “Dee Dee” Jeantel.

Rachel Jeantel was sworn in to testify in the second degree murder trial of George Zimmerman on June 26, 2013. While testifying, many people took to social media outlets to express their angst with the nineteen year old woman’s testimony. I was perturbed by how Black people responded to her demeanor and hesitance on the stand. In my own need to express my thoughts on the entire situation, I designed this poster using her image, quotes from her testimony, and entitled it, “Rachel DeeDee Jeantel, Mad Broken English”.

“Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent, and our language—so the argument runs—must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to airplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.” – George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

As a means of preemptive explanation for the title, as stated above, I was disturbed by how people immediately attacked the young sister for her choice of words. Now, I do not use the term “choice” loosely here. Rachel Jeantel was not on trial, nor did she want to be there. It might even be fair to say that her presence in the court that day was involuntary. I definitely feel safe writing that Rachel was obviously under duress while being asked to recall the elements of a phone call, the last conversation she had-or anybody else other than possibly George Zimmerman- with Trayvon , while being patronizingly interrogated in the standard Socratic method of these sorts of legal proceedings.

The crass and demeaning statements typed by many reflect a lack of empathy on the part of those that made these comments, rather than indicia of her lack of education or even social status. However, I do believe that her presentation touches on how many Black people in this country feel a sense of trepidation when other Blacks choose a more culturally authentic posture when in the White public eye. In the graphic I designed, I choose the symbol “MAD”, not to make Rachel yet another “Angry Black Woman” in the media, but rather to point to a certain righteous indignation that I believe most critiquing her choice of posture might be overlooking. Namely, that she was upset; namely, that she was frustrated; namely, she possibly saw defense attorneys Don West and Mark O’Mara as who they were: the people hired to defend the guy that killed her friend, Trayvon.

As part of the double consciousness of Blacks in the United States written extensively about by sociologist W.E.B. Dubois, is this need for US Blacks to feign reasonableness around White people, that is, to force a smile that has no roots in authentic emotional bearing. There is a socio-psychology that informs US Blacks to respond rebelliously when being handled by Whites, and others, in a design to oppose authority. Unfortunately, many US Blacks have a visceral intimidation of White authority, especially when that authority is derived from the US Justice System.

In the same cultural vein that young Black children show a disdain for the oppressive over culture by speaking to authority figures in more urban Black vernacular while dismissing the more approved of socialized version of English representation, I pose that also Ms. Jeantel chooses to use this voice. Rachel’s vitriol for the circumstance was semiologically reproduced via the attitude and the expressed symbols she evoked on that stand. She was not and is not the “angry Black woman,” but she is a rightfully, and understandably, angered woman who happens to be Black.

It should be noted at this point that according to Rachel’s attorney, Rod Vereen, Rachel speaks three languages. Besides English, which is her third language, she speaks Spanish(Her father is from the Dominican Republic) as well as Creole(her mother is Haitian). Yet, once again, it is not Rachel Jeantel on trial for murder, and I am battling perplexed feelings with regard to finding my Self defending a woman who has without a shadow of doubt endured tremendous traumatic stress. Not only am I disturbed by a certain collective lack of empathy, but on top of that, I am distraught by the reality of needing to explain to a group of people regarding their obliviousness to their own culture of resistance, no matter how symbolic and passive-aggressive one might define that culture of resistance.

SANFORD, FL - JUNE 26:  Witness Rachel Jeantel gives her testimony to the defense during George Zimmerman's trial in Seminole circuit court
SANFORD, FL – JUNE 26: Witness Rachel Jeantel gives her testimony to the defense during George Zimmerman’s trial in Seminole circuit court

This culture of resistance is reflective of the slave narratives of agency whereby the only means of fight some slaves felt they had was to break the dishes of their White slave masters. In the same artery of resistance where US Blacks began wearing their ball caps on their heads with the bill towards the back, and some even wearing their pants lower than what is the norm; in the same train of thought that promotes a social posture where speaking “proper” English is deemed as “acting White”, which is reflecting the culture that these people seek to escape or find some sort of power of their own from. Much of what is exhibited as US Black culture is an extension of counterculture, including a manifestation whereby one chooses to not speak English(the bastard language of bastard languages that anyone should feel ashamed of attaching the adjective “proper” or “standard” to) in a presumably acceptable manner, or more accurately, in a more “Black” fashion. Which, ironically, is what makes Rachel Jeantel’s choice of posture the more precise definition of proper use of a language because she did what language is supposed to do: communicate a thought.

Rachel Jeantel, the friend of Trayvon Martin whose murder caused many of the same people deriding this same friend to rally throughout the country, was faced with admitting to a national audience that she lied to her friend’s mother about her age, and the reason she decided not to show up at his funeral. While the scorners hurled assumption and insult at her, Rachel Jeantel sat in front her friend’s mother and recounted the details of the last possible conversation that woman’s son ever had. She recounted the details so vividly and with such a passion, that the defense attorneys at certain moments wanted her to repeat her statements. This request, mind you, was not due to what many fearful US Blacks would believe—that she was inarticulate and inaudible. No, it was because what she said and how she said it was revolutionary in such a setting. “Creepy ass cracka” boomed from the loudspeaker of her voice box and rattled the glass-like worldview of residential United States. “I just told you” was an intimidating, yet casual, reminder for some that the US Justice system really ought not to have the overt tones of supremacy, and that on the stand, no matter who has what degrees or titles, we are equals. Her power, her unique position in our minds that day, was not because we did not understand her, it was because via neck rolls, teenage disdain of authority, and Black teenage disdain of White authority, Rachel Jeantel not only stood her ground, she made us know exactly what she was talking about.

This idea of equality in the courtroom returned to my immediate consciousness on Friday, July 5, 2013 when Dr. Shiping Bao took the stand. Now, Dr. Bao, or as one highly educated woman typed, “the bad ass doctor”, is the man that performed the autopsy on Trayvon Martin after Trayvon was killed, placed in a bag, and marked as a “John Doe”. In a similar fashion to Rachel, Dr. Bao felt the need to express his vision for the jury. Dr. Bao demonstrated that he too has a belief about how the court system ought to work, and in his ideal world, probably mapped out somewhere in the corner of his now famous(or infamous) notes. It was his demeanor, his stature represented by his “100% confidence” and maybe the fact that he “reads many books”. Sure, this might have come off as a bit patronizing, but is not the Socratic method of asking series upon series of questions to elicit one’s point just as patronizing? And ultimately, is not the patronizing tone Rachel took towards the defense team of George Zimmerman, the more honest reason this burly, dark skinned woman asserting all of her authentic Black Womanness to a professional White man was attacked for? Dr. Bao was assailed by a few because he would not cooperate. His obvious intelligence – no matter that he spoke just as lightly at times as Rachel, and he speaks with an Asian corruption of “proper” English- and his job title, seem to have worked as a shield from attacks on his education, so most of those criticizing him just called him “crazy” or some derivative. But, ultimately, the determining quality that seems to have people in an uproar is Rachel and Dr. Bao’s desire to express them Selves how they chose as opposed to acquiescing to perceived courtroom decorum.

In saying all of that, I hope that the piece it Self was capable of communicating visually what it took me over one thousand and six hundred words to say. I chose a more modernist approach to the main illustration of Rachel, and the third layer of quotes. The layer of quotes it Self is almost art deco in font choice and treatment. I picked several quotes from her testimony that I felt would express her testimony and the elements of the testimony that made it controversial. For the title, I chose a more post-modern approach and an overt deconstructionist method. I played on the term “Bad” by using the term “Mad”, as stated above, I did not want this to be interpreted as Rachel Jeantel her Self being the “Angry Black Woman”, or to be confused with the stereotypes of Black women and “bad attitudes”, but more in the spirit of Black women that made statements that caused the media as an extension of government to dub them as “mad”. Further, as alluded to, my most prominent intent is to toy at the concept of “Bad English”, as if “English”, and the “English” have been anything but “Bad”. I felt that it was not “Bad English”, but mostly, “Mad English”, which if you have been following along, I seem to consider a beneficial thing. The treatment of the word “English” in this piece is to symbolize the already “broken” nature of “English” before most of us living today even became acquainted with this particular set of visual and vocal symbols of communication. With this treatment, I really wanted to remind people of the nature of “English” it Self, and much of the George Zimmerman trial– with its Hispanic, Asian, US White, US Black witnesses, an all-woman jury, a Woman judge disturbed by the antics of an overzealous White male defense, an Instagram image of one of the Defense attorneys and his daughters with a caption that causes controversy, the only smile from George Zimmerman erupting because of a joke told by his Black college instructor, a university educated Black mother whose son is being vilified as a criminal to the extent that the defense blames him for his own death—is similar to a Polaroid snapshot of US culture as it stands presently. As the texture, the physical construction, of the United States has been deconstructed, so has its primary language, and I wanted that psycho-social deconstruction to be visually communicated in my use of the deconstructionist typographical treatment of the symbol “English”.