“Bird on Industrial” by Carol Shillibeer (The Adroit Journal, Issue Eight)
What does it mean to be Black, and still here? I find myself at war with this question too often. To be Black and young. To be Black and alive. To be Black and unshot, neck unlynched, spine unbent. Black and still breathing. We watch our cities burn, first from the inside, and then outside too. From Pittsburgh to Ferguson. From Chicago to Los Angeles. We become familiar with loss. We befriend the dark. And yet still we are, Black and here. What do we make of this unwanted life?
In my home of West Philly, death is a thing that breathes the same air as you. When a child dies in Philly, the mourning is public. The corner where the child was killed becomes a memorial. The parents find the nearest streetlight and adorn it with temporary, meaningful things. Teddy bears, flowers, football trophies, baby photos, double-dutch ropes, handwritten notes, report cards and anything else that can signal to the world that someone once lived here. You can’t walk a block in the city without finding yourself standing under the light of a tombstone.
The music video for Flying Lotus’s “Never Catch Me” begins in a funeral church. Like death, everything here is quiet. A thirty-second moment of silence until finally the song begins. A lonely rain of piano notes as we are introduced to the faces of those who are still alive. Rows of church pews filled with grievers. They are dressed in black. Large hats with lace shawls. Black blazers over white shirts. The routine of grief is a familiar one. We see a childhood memorial with photos of a young boy and a young girl, and we learn that this is a funeral for two. We see their coffins. The two children are dressed in their church clothes— their Sunday best. They are the type of kids who are the first to the dinner table. Grandma loves them because they always clean their plates. They smile when the sun is out, and they know to come inside when the streetlights turn on. The type of kids who are still just that. Kids. Kendrick Lamar raps:
“They say that heaven’s real.”
The faces of the funeral are layered throughout the opening minute of the music video. An old man holds his head up to the gaze of death. A woman fans herself. Two young men sit in silence. No one cries. Death is such a familiar face that eventually the living are unsurprised when it shows up. There are no more tears to give. You run out of anger. You accept that fire is the natural state of things. Death comes into your house and sits at your dinner table. It watches you while you sleep. It sits in the passenger seat while you drive. It has run through so many of your family members, so many Freddies and Michaels and Rekias and Korryns, how could we not build up a tolerance for it? And then it happens. The two children in the coffins open their eyes. And it is here that the dance begins.
They leap out of their coffins like it’s Christmas morning and Santa has left them the best presents. They run to each other, in front of the whole funeral. Holding hands, they kick their feet in a dance of glee. A rhythmic Ring around the Rosie. The dance is a flurry of motion, stylized and synchronized, equal part possessed by something holy, equal part dancing the bliss of their bones.
“Looking down at my soul now
Tell me I’m in control now.”
Their arms wave through the air as an invisible choir claps in the background. Their dance combines the hit and precision of hip-hop with the internal sway of blues. The young boy smoothing his way through the moves and the young girl stomping her way into the melody.
“Tell me I can live long and I can live right.”
The dead children are regifted their smiles. It spreads from cheek to cheek the moment they open their eyes. Their footwork is a divine line dance. They move with their whole bodies. In death, they are so alive.
“Ain’t no blood pumping no fear
I got hope inside of my bones
This that life beyond your own life
This ain’t physical for mankind.”
In the first grade, my uncle was shot at a gas station. Someone walked up to his car, pointed a gun at his head, and that was the end of it. This was the first time I met Death. Me and Death, we cried together. I had no idea what Death meant or where Death had taken my uncle, all I knew is that I was still here and he wasn’t. The next year, a bullet went through John’s wall and made a home where his heart was. He was in the third grade. We played football together when the sun came out. He fought for life until he ran out of fight. Death sat in my dining room as my mom delivered the news. Every time Death came back, it became less and less of a surprise. Every news story became less grand. I went from crying with Death to simply waving at him as he left with more and more people who looked just like me. Black and Death have grown close over the centuries. To be Black in this country is a constant battle between survivor’s guilt and wondering when you will meet him next.
As the young boy and girl cheer each other through solo dance sections, we realize that no one in the church can see the dead children. None of the funeral attendees are able to watch them in their brilliant dance of life. They continue to look at the coffins as if searching for something they could never know. They stare forward in silence. The dancing pair have all that childlike hope in their eyes, but they are still gone. They are still dead. The funeral attendees hold the weight of the dead and the burden of being alive on their backs. They console each other. They hold each other. They let the quiet stay.
Soon, the dead boy and girl leave the room, their baby bowties and sundresses flying in the wind. They run out of the church, out of the funeral home and into the street. As they emerge, they are greeted by other children in a bright parking lot. These children play jump rope and patty cake. Their sneakers light up. Their braids bounce off of their necks. They jump like nothing can hold them down. I think this is what joy looks like.
“Say you will never ever catch me no.
Say you will never ever catch me no.”
The two children begin one final dance outside in the sunlight, surrounded by children playing. The music pulsates with a heavy bass that sounds like an errant heartbeat. An arcade buzz is synthesized into the background. The dance, again a mixture of childlike routine and hyper-choreographed footwork, carries the children into a final fit of life. They grab their feet. They glide over the concrete. They squeeze their knees together. They do the mashed potato. And above all else, they smile, an infectious and tear bringing smile. How could such happiness coexist in the face of death? In a final gesture, the two children jump into the back of a hearse. They climb to the front seats and drive away. The other kids chase the hearse in a divine race to the end.
The final shot of the video, after the dancing is done, after the music has finished, is the young boy. Still in his church clothes. Still in his funeral uniform. He sticks his head out of the hearse’s window as the car drives down the street.
“You will never ever catch me”
The wind blows against his face. He looks up. His eyes are closed. The sun is going down. His face is a smile. Just one big smile.
“You will never ever catch me”
He holds onto the side of the car. They are driving away in a hearse. He still has his baby teeth.
“Never Catch Me” is both a testament to our capacity to survive and a question to what beauty can exist in death. Death can chew the life out of our spirits. It is a thing that drains you until you accept that it lives here too. It is a tireless creature. It is always there. Under every streetlight in Philly. Inside each burning CVS in Baltimore. In the red white and blue of a police siren. In the trigger of a gun. On the branches of a poplar tree. At the bristle caress of a noose. It has never left us. It is my worst fear. And still, it is my strongest ally.
“You will never ever catch me”
I wonder if John and my uncle are dancing in Death. Perhaps right in front of my face, and I just can’t see them yet. Perhaps grief kept me in a silent despair. Perhaps Death is a celebration in and of itself. Perhaps all the dead Black folk I know are drinking Kool-Aid in their church clothes, or jumping rope in the sun. I wonder if the reality of Death is something to be embraced, the final page of a story already written, the beginning of a brand new book. I wonder if Death is chasing me, or if I am chasing it.
“You will never ever catch me”
What does it mean to be Black, and still here? It means I am fortunate. It means I am everyone who did not make it this far. Amen. I am Black. I am surrounded by Death, and it looks just like me. I am the funeral and the dance. I am the crying mother and the angry son. I am the riot and the quiet. I sip tea with Death and ask it to go ahead and try me. I am still here. Amen. I am standing under a streetlight wondering who will get me next. I still have my baby teeth. I am best friend to the night. I sing the blues and slap the drums with my backhand. I am the saxophone that cries Naima. I scuba dive to the bottom of the Tallahatchie. I am my mother’s son. I am still here. Amen. I’m hot. Fire is my natural state. I invite the dead to come dance with me. You will never catch me. I do not apologize. I keep my friends close and my enemies closer, and damn right Death stands next to me when I walk. And I walk. I walk like Death ain’t nothing new. I walk like it’s the dance that let’s me survive. I am Black and I am here, for as long as I can be. My anger is my greatest joy. My smile is bigger and badder than Death’s. I taste tears in my grin. I scream every time I laugh.