Blackness in America has always had some kind of unfortunate intimacy with trauma and grief, but in Elizabeth Alexander’s beautiful, relevant book, “The Trayvon Generation,” the poet redefines the proximity of Black identity to loss as an opportunity to create new rituals and a new paradigm. “We speak to the dead in so many different ways because we know they left too soon,” Alexander writes, “because we need their navigation, because we need to remember against the force of society’s undervaluing us and throwing us away.” In this slim treatise, an expansion of her powerful essay in The New Yorker, Alexander speaks to the dead and the living.
We are familiar with how these things play out without needing a summary, but she offers one anyway: “When yet another young Black person is shot dead — in their neighborhood, while jogging, in their bed — we brace in anticipation of the tableaux to come: the neighborhood funeral, the raw grief of mothers, the unlikelihood of a trial and, if a trial, the character assault on the person who was murdered.”
In the face of so many needlessly dead, unjustly stolen, remembrance feels like the least we can do. But Alexander is focused both on memory, recollecting parts of ourselves and psyches, and also on repair and replenishing through a shift in perspective, helped along by the beautiful art from a range of artists including Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, and Kara Walker throughout. The work of Black artists in these pages elevates the conversation at the heart of the book: how Black people, especially Black children, are viewed with such fear that the dread of others may very well lead to their early graves.
The haunting backdrop of the text is that it has not been a full generation since Trayvon Martin was slain, though it certainly feels like the decade has stretched 25 years. Still, claiming the generation in his name is a commemoration of the impact of killing our children; it evokes the reverberations from the injustice of his death that led to the Black Lives Matter movement; a phrase Alexander calls “apt then and now. Its coinage feels both ancestral and prophetic in its ongoing necessity.”
Like a prose poem, “The Trayvon Generation” is deceptively succinct even as it humanizes our needlessly dead, the incarcerated, the many survivors of instantiations of Black inferiority. The book offers wisdom, reflection, and reportage with a crystalline precision infused with a powerful, elegant empathy. In the opening chapter, “what will be the sacred words,” Alexander sets the table, letting us know that “Poems are how we say, This is who we are, how we chronicle ourselves when we are insufficiently found in history books and commemorative sites.”
Alexander questions how we memorialize some, with statues or monuments, and disregard others. She borrows language from Adrienne Su, who refers to “the shock of delayed comprehension” as a way of talking about how long it can take to wrap our minds around the galling disregard of the full humanity of Black people when seen in artifacts or art that has survived the centuries. In a telling anecdote, Alexander describes a painting featuring Elihu Yale, the University’s namesake, seated with a chained Black enslaved person at his feet; she saw it often during her time at Yale, but did not always truly see it.
“These images are not just assaults to Black people,” she writes. “They say to white people who are exposed to them over and over, all day every day, This is normal. Slavery was normal. By continuing to display it without comment or counter, we say yes to it.”
“The Trayvon Generation” is a meditation on saying no to the images that degrade Black people and normalize our pain. Alexander says yes, and invites us to join her, to making our own monuments and rituals that provide relief, memory, and joy. So often, Black people are taken without ceremony. But we can, and we do, “receremonialize” them and keep the generations alive, Alexander writes.
This is one dazzling, beautiful aspect of “The Trayvon Generation”; joy as an act of resistance. As the last chapter of the book points out, “there are Black people in the future.” It is not a reminder, but an assertion that is the narrative arc of all the tribulation and sadness and holding on that has come before. “Black people today,” Alexander writes, “are the product of people who survived, who were not meant to flourish.” But still, here we are. Here we remain, legible to our communities and to the world through writers like Alexander. We will belong to the future because of work like this.
THE TRAYVON GENERATION
By Elizabeth Alexander
Grand Central, 160 pages, $22
Joshunda Sanders is an author and speechwriter.