The Trayvon Generation
Just as I was finishing The Trayvon Generation, Elizabeth Alexander’s meditation on Black creativity in the face of brutality and violence, my phone alerted me to the heartbreaking news of yet another vicious act of cruelty in the mass shooting in a grocery store in a predominately Black neighborhood of Buffalo, New York.
Buying groceries while Black. We can add it to the endless list of offenses resulting in death for Black people: Driving while Black. Sleeping while Black. Running while Black. Playing in a park while Black. Walking while Black. The list goes on and on. When will it end, I wonder, and I fear the answer is: not for a very long time.
In the city where I live, we learned recently of a lawsuit brought against the police for pulling over and illegally searching a car as two Black teenagers were held at gun point for no reason last summer. Aware of the numerous cases of unarmed Black people being summarily executed by police, the two nineteen-year-olds were rightly terrified and continue to suffer trauma. Though the incident fortunately resulted in no physical harm, the two were humiliated to be surrounded by police at gunpoint in broad daylight at a busy intersection in their own hometown. And yet, the police department claimed the officers involved were following “standard operating procedure” and issued no apology.
What can we do? Lawsuits and civil disobedience, police reform, funding of non-police related community services (mental health and social workers) all have their place, and we chip away at them in our efforts to stop this madness.
But poet and essayist Elizabeth Alexander offers insight in the more profound response of art. Black poets, Black painters, and Black sculptors all bring to bear a powerful revisioning that is essential to combatting racism and violence. Her book is precious, containing not only her own remarkable writing and observations, but reproductions of some nineteen works of visual art. The book is small, so these images offer just a taste of the impact of these creations. In the course of reading the book, I happened to make a trip to the Addison Gallery in Andover and discovered Souvenir II by Kerry James Marshall, one of the works in Alexander’s book, in its full-size glory (9 feet high by 13 feet wide).
This was not an easy book to read. Not because the writing was unclear or the words difficult. Quite the opposite. The words were as sharp and searing as knives. Alexander describes her own grappling with the depictions of enslaved people in the stained-glass windows at Yale University, where she studied and has worked, and her delayed ability to see what was right before her. She describes the pain of Black children forced to witness racism in their textbooks and the statuary of their communities, and their sense of guilt at their own powerlessness to object or contradict.
Alexander comments on the many cemeteries of Black people whose lives were regarded as not worth noting in their fullness. As I write, Harvard University is in the process of reckoning with how to memorialize the people who were enslaved on behalf of the university and those who taught or studied there, people who are known to us only by their first names or perhaps a nickname employed by those who claimed to own them. In contrast, Alexander notes, “Black communities are full of people wearing T-shirts and hoodies with the faces of young Black people on them whom their communities mourn and remember.” At the annual Mother’s Day March sponsored by the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute in Boston, the streets are filled with people, many of them mothers, wearing such T-shirts.
She discusses the 1905 letter that a Clark University researcher sent to W. E. B. DuBois, inquiring: 1. Whether the negro sheds tears; 2. If so, under what general conditions—anger, fear, shame, pain, sorrow, etc. Four further questions follow regarding “the negro” and crying, and reading these questions I can’t help but wonder whether much of what we witness in the way of violence, intimidation, humiliation, torment, and deprivation directed toward Black people is not just some sick and unending attempt to answer these questions.
I’d like to end this post on a hopeful note, but I cannot. Not easily. Except to reflect that I recently participated in a discussion about the struggle to make peace in a time of war and offered the idea of the necessity of creativity. Near the end of her book, Alexander underscores my belief: “people make movements and history with the force of creativity. The truly heroic drama of Black struggle is seen in the vivid figurative language of visionary leadership, the tableaux of fierce and proud resistance, the blazing beauty of people who survive indignities that might seem unbearable, the style and innovation with which Black people keep on stepping, offering countless examples to remind us of what has been overcome as well as to spark possibility for envisioning the new.”