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The Ferryman II, or A Few Thoughts on the Death of Trayvon Martin

Posted Jul 16 2013 11:26am
In Greek mythology, Charon is the ferryman who carries souls of the dead to Hades. He will do so only if their bodies have been buried or burned with the correct rites, and if they pay him with a coin that the living have placed under their tongues when they perished. He has therefore about him an air of austerity, even severity: these conventions must be adhered to. He will broker no deviations, extend no sympathy to any soul who comes before him improperly prepared.

Did I subconsciously associate my ferryman the other day (see July 15 ) with Charon? The latter is often depicted as a grizzled, rough, bearded man, bare-chested and manipulating his long pole, whereas the ferry boat captain whose bearing made me burst into tears was of a tidy, moderate, disciplined build, and he fairly gleamed in his white uniform. But the similarity cannot be missed: each stern in his duty, each without room to soften, consider pleas, entertain doubt.

I cannot help regarding my ferryman also now in the sickly light cast by the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, and I wonder if that wasn't haunting my reaction the whole time. True, the ferryboat incident happened before the verdict was announced, but the court case had been much on my mind and I had recently been involved in a long, passionate conversation about the likelihood of an acquittal. At any rate, the law as interpreted in the Trayvon Martin case behaved like Charon and like the crisp white captain: adhering to the letter in such a way as to make allowable the murder of an unarmed teenager on his way home from buying candy. The law professor and writer Patricia Williams has written about the spirit of the law (jus) vs. the letter of the law (lex). In The Alchemy of Race and Rights , she says that when lex is applied without jus, the law "becomes sterile and formalistic," and is unjust. She writes, "Living solely according to the letter of the law means that we live without spirit, that one can do anything one wants to as long as it complies in a technical sense."

My friend used to have a t-shirt with an image of Lady Justice tearing off her blindfold. I want our law, our protectors, our bosses and governors, our pillars of society and all our ferryboat captains to be strong and stern - but not impervious. I long for them to be soft, attuned to spirit, to jus, able to listen and see and grow.   
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