Editor’s note: La’Keitha Daniels is a baker and blogger at “ Sweet Nothings from the Sidebar.” She is also an attorney and community relations manager for a region of charter schools in the Atlanta area. Daniels appears regularly as a juror on HLN After Dark.
“Sak Pase.” That’s the greeting that Rachel Jeantel and many in her community would reply to. It means “what’s up” in Creole, the language native to Haiti, where she and her mother are from.
I knew immediately that Jeantel, the last person to talk to Trayvon Martin on the phone before he was shot, was of Haitian (and Dominican) descent based on her last name. I know this because I spent the first 16 years of my life growing up in one of the most diverse cities in the United States, Miami.
My neighborhood school was the same school Jeantel attends. The roux of this perfect gumbo of Caribbean culture is where we both call home. But one thing that often creates a divide between this community and mainstream America is the dialect and accents that those outside of that community often have trouble understanding.
For two days, Jeantel was on the stand in the Zimmerman murder trial doing her very best to hold it together while America has turned her appearance and her acumen into fodder for their jokes. People have focused more on how she delivered her message than the fact that this key witness was struggling to detail the last moments of her friend’s life, which she unknowingly bore witness to.
Nevermind that she speaks THREE languages, and English is not her first. It’s easy to gawk at a large, dark-skinned young black woman and pick her apart like vultures because her subjects and verbs don’t agree. And that goes for the whites and blacks alike who have torn her down on social media.
But why are we, the Judgy McJudges of America, so focused on her speech? What everyone should have paid attention to was that Jeantel never wavered from her version of the events the night Martin was killed. She may have told MORE of the story to those who asked the right questions, but she never wavered.
Talking to teenagers is like pulling teeth with a rusty wrench. But if you ask the right questions, you get the right answers, and the State did that when Jeantel was on the stand.
The sad part of the long, painful two days of testimony wasn’t the muffled sound of Jeantel’s voice or the combative nature of her responses at times. The sad part was the disrespect of defense attorney Don West, who knew of Jeantel’s challenges and limitations and exploited them so deeply on cross-examination.
As an attorney, I understand the need to score points on cross, especially with such an important witness. But what I do not think he placed true value in was the six women sitting in the jury box watching him attempt to ridicule and embarrass a 19-year-old girl on the stand in front of millions of viewers.
Women do not play those games. White, Latina, black or otherwise, women are inherently the more empathetic sex, especially in regards to violence against women and children. And the assault waged on Jeantel by the defense was indefensible.
West asked (in a condescending voice) if she can read, and, “Are you OK? You seem so different today than yesterday.” The fact that he also inferred that she was somehow changed by conversation with others or perhaps medicated in an effort to get under her skin was disgusting. The utter disrespect he showed will backfire on him with those jurors.
Most of black America seemed to be in one big prayer circle around Jeantel because of the fear that people outside of her community will never be able to see through the messenger to get to the message. I pray that they are wrong.