The forgotten collateral of exhuming the Black dead through art
My best friend’s brother was murdered in 2012. We shared a birthday and the Blackness for which he was killed. My mother might say the fact that we didn’t share the same fate is only by the grace of God. I wonder what kind of God saves one mother’s Black boy just to take one away from another and calls that grace.
I am reminded of my precarious Black life, seemingly hinging on a senseless God’s whims, whenever my friend’s brother’s name is evoked. You see, Trayvon was the reason #BlackLivesMatter erupted with such force it was able to stop so many from forgetting what makes them not matter. And, like many Black folks in my generation, Trayvon Martin’s death and his murderer’s acquittal marked a vital juncture in my social awakening. If it weren’t clear before, the disregard for Martin’s life by Zimmerman, the media, and finally, the state, made plain just how long we had been walking in place when it came to the liberation of Black communities.
As such a monumental event, it’s no wonder folks utilize Trayvon Martin’s name so often in telling their own story. He becomes a much simpler stand-in for the numbingly complex narratives of anti-Black state violence, Black liberation movement stagnation, and the racial terror facing this generation.
But during this metamorphosis, I wonder how being made to stand in for so many other roles prevents Trayvon from simply being someone’s son–someone’s brother–in our minds.
There are great pieces of art about Trayvon, and then there is artwork that isn’t about him that only use his death because it’s easier for the artist than being forced to reckon with their own mortality.
A few weeks ago, I took my best friend to a poetry reading and at least two performers in a little over an hour brought his brother’s Black body from the grave in their poems, without ever bothering to bury him again, to speak of bringing it back to life.They couldn’t have known that Trayvon’s blood stood mere feet from them, waiting to hear, again, the sound of desecration. How could they? Jahvaris stays out of the spotlight, and no one is ever shown the faces of the Black dead’s family unless they themselves choose to show it. Even the Black lives of those surviving the dead don’t matter to the world. But when Black lives don’t matter to anyone else, perhaps at least Black deaths should matter to us. And, considering what the ancestors knew about spirits, perhaps we could all be a little more careful when exhuming our dead.
I recently wrote a piece about Rashawn Brazell, a queer Black man who was dismembered 12 years ago. In it, I asked what prison abolition means in the context of knowing his mother had waited so long for justice for her son. I would hope this piece was more tasteful than most of the poems I have heard so far about my best friend’s brother, but it was quickly pointed out how tactless it was still to ask what abolition means to the mother of a murdered child without even bothering to ask her. I was, in essence, using Brazell as a plot device for the story I, by the grace of God, am able to tell, rather than attempting to uncover the story he was never able to finish.
I think we’ve been so bombarded by Black death porn and Black life reduced to “Black bodies” that it makes sense to try to turn that trauma into something useful–into an impetus for action. But what if trauma is just trauma? What if death is just death? What if a family’s love for their dead should always take precedence over our love for their dead’s stories? What if, in our desperation to prove we are still feeling, still living, that we still matter, we all too often ignore the feelings, lives, and the things that matter to those standing on the front lines?
When I asked my friend if he was bothered by the poems, he told me no, that he’d heard worse. I am forced to wonder if he is talking about this essay. Every day, he wears a bracelet that reads “I am Trayvon Martin” on one side and “You are Trayvon Martin” on the other. Perhaps here I am again projecting my desire for what this story should look like onto this family. Perhaps in my guilt for taking from those who have already lost so much, I overlook that even those with pain might have something they need to share. And before this is published, I’ll have him read this as if I am not myself, again, exhuming his brother’s corpse, hoping to sufficiently bury it back, but never quite being completely sure if I can.
In a recent interview with Vice, Jahvaris worried aloud that, “people didn’t remember that [Trayvon] was a person.” I remind myself that I am trying to remember a boy I never met. I am trying to say the names of those my tongue is getting too heavy to hold. I am trying to fight for those who cannot anymore, and I am often failing. But if God does give grace, it must be so that you can pick yourself back up after failure and try harder the next time.