I don’t have any answers.
One of the best ways I have to describe my life under white supremacy, of living and functioning in White America, is that it’s a constant battle to define, protect, conserve, and nourish my self in the face of relentlessly overwhelming opposition. It’s having to keep a firm idea of who I am in my head to counter the onslaught of dissenting opinions from people, from pop culture, from tradition, from the world as a whole. I have to assert myself and define my self, because the definitions thrust upon me have never been true.
I have what I like to think is a strong name. David, then two middle names honoring different men who came before me, and then Brothers. I’m proud of it, proud enough that I haven’t used a pseudonym online in probably fifteen years. My name is always either present from jump or just around the corner when you come across the places I haunt online. I want you to know exactly who I am and what I said and where it came from.
Names are powerful, whether you possess a name or learn someone else’s name. I learned as much from Kunta Kinte, Marlo Stanfield, and Roxanne Shante. Your name is your name. It’s currency. It’s all you have, after everything is over. It’s your life. Your name is storage, and that storage holds your reputation, your hopes, your dreams, your likes, your dislikes, and more. My name is my definition, a way to organize and preserve the collection of experiences, talents, and feelings that made me what I am. I am David Brothers.
I have a hard time with how we hashtag victims of violence to honor them. I don’t actively argue or root against it, because I understand exactly why we do it, but I personally choose not to do it. A hashtagged name collapses the three hundred and sixty degrees of a person’s life and self to a single point, like a sphere seen from a distance. Their name shifts from a definition of who they are to a hashtag that describes how they died. When I need shorthand when discussing violence, I try to refer to the killer and not the victim. A recent and particularly egregious murder isn’t #BothamJean to me—it’s #AmberGuyger. She committed the sin, so why should he have to bear the indignity of having his name taken from him on top of losing his life?
That loss of detail comes naturally from working in shorthand…it’s how compression works, and it absolutely kills me inside. It feels unfair to the dead, another injustice heaped on top of a lifetime of them. When you see the names Oscar Grant, Abner Louima, Nia Wilson, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Stephon Clark, and dozens more names I’ve seen and had to consciously put out of my mind to keep from screaming until I die, you don’t think of proud fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, daughters, siblings, or anything else. You think of them as victims of America first and foremost, and then, hopefully, you’ll recall some part of their humanity after. It’s hard to explain how unjust that is to me, to have your whole self taken and then completely redefined due to matters beyond your control.
The murder of Oscar Grant by BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle in 2009 wasn’t the first one that hit close to home, but it was the first that happened in my backyard as a grown man. I live in Fruitvale now, and I still go to 12th St BART on my daily commute rather than Fruitvale Station. Every time I think about Fruitvale Station, I think about watching Ryan Coogler’s movie Fruitvale Station in Berkeley with a theater full of black people weeping at what America puts us through, bawling at the way Michael B. Jordan’s portrayal of Oscar Grant passes from a man to a memory, and then from a memory to shorthand for state-sponsored violence.
Lupe Fiasco released a new album recently called DROGAS Wave. There’s a lot to chew on in it, but two tracks that caught my attention are “Alan Forever” and “Jonylah Forever,” and they’re named after Alan Kurdi and Jonylah Watkins. Alan was a toddler who died when a boat capsized on its way from Turkey to Greece, where his family hoped to find asylum. Jonylah was a six-month-old girl who died of gunshot wounds in her father’s lap, due to a gangster seeking retaliation against him.
I vividly remember Alan. 2015 was a bad year. It was the year my grandmother died, and the year that videos of police brutality went from rare to constant. Alan died a little over halfway through the year. I remember him because well-intentioned but foolish whites posted his image all over the internet in an attempt to bring constructive attention to the refugee crisis, the same way the same group posted videos and pictures of black lives being cut down to bring awareness to an issue that black people have had figured out forever. I get it, because something has to be done in the face of atrocity, and sometimes you need to shock people into action. Galvanize them. But it still made me unbearably sad, and still does, because he was a boy who had been transformed into a tool by people who did not care about him except as leverage, a final indignity in his short life. Alan’s photo is at the top of his Wikipedia page. A photo of him smiling and being a child is below the fold.
Lupe does something I’ve probably only seen in poetry before this. He wrote about the dead, trying to get at their interiority, to express that they aren’t just another victim of the evil that people do, but people unto themselves. Souls. It’s fan-fiction, of a kind, and one where, rather than dying due to factors far beyond their control, they experience life in a better world than this. They get a chance.
Fundamentally, the songs are about how important it is that adults protect children, and in so doing, secure our future. Alan survives the water that took his life, expresses joy, grows up, and joins the Canadian Olympic swimming team. Jonylah survives the bullet that took her life, takes her first steps at one year old, gets a scholarship at sixteen, a doctorate at twenty-two, and goes on to serve her hometown with a free clinic. At the end of both songs, the reason why Lupe chose those specific occupations become clear, as Alan and Jonylah rescue their younger selves from their real-world deaths. Alan leaps off a boat, grabs his younger self, and swims to shore, while Jonylah was on the scene when her younger self was shot and leverages her medical knowledge to save her own life.
It’s a parallel universe thing, but despite the fantasy, it hollowed me out. It helped me realize why I have such a hard time with hashtagging the dead. As I am now, I’m all potential energy. I could be this, I could be that, I could be anything. Anything. But when I’m #DavidBrothers, I’m the victim of a person, entity, or culture that considered my life less than theirs. All that potential energy would be lost in favor of a static existence I never wanted, earned, or asked for. Lupe’s song suggests what they could’ve been if the trauma of reality hadn’t cut their lives short, and the idea is equal parts enthralling and heartbreaking, particularly because they’re children.
“This is what life would be like if we were better.”