As teenagers, my friends and I were fans of the comedian Demetri Martin’s dry humor. One joke we often repeated was Martin’s confusion about giving people flowers. “Here you go,” he imitated, “now watch these die.” That line lingers in my memory somewhere next to the Death Cab for Cutie song “What Sarah Said.” There, a person’s death reminds singer Benjamin Gibbard of something he once heard, “that love is watching someone die.”
Those traces that stuck with me as a young person rushed back as I read Melissa Valentine’s debut memoir, The Names of All the Flowers, a piercingly honest narrative of family leading up to the loss of her brother. “This book is an ode to our collective grief and trauma,” she writes. “It deserves to have a name. It deserves discussion. When I gave mine a name, it began to heal.” In this way, grief and trauma become flowers that Valentine waters in order to heal.
Valentine grew up in a household of six siblings, with a Black mother and a white Quaker father, between Selma and their eventual home in Oakland. Among her siblings, Valentine was closest to her older brother, Junior, the one she grew alongside until circumstances altered their courses. As a young Black man, Valentine’s parents harshly punish Junior in fear for “his future body,” the one they cannot protect from the everydayness of white supremacy.
“This is when we first begin to part,” she observes. Marking their separation as more than parental worry, Valentine sees the tendrils of racism at work, how they curl around families and work to stunt their growth. “This process is slow but intentional. It involves many people and many messages; it begins while we are still in our child bodies.” Cultural signals cue Valentine to be “silent, undeserving, inadequate,” while they teach Junior to be “unpredictable, scary. Bad.”
At a nail salon, Valentine watches a CNN story about a Black person’s murder with other women. “We watch as reporters interview the sisters of the victims, the mothers,” Valentine notes. “For one moment they are asked what they think.” Thus, The Names of All the Flowers disrupts a culture of profit-driven media to say: Stop. Read this. Junior’s life mattered. He deserves more than one moment. Valentine gives him all of the flowers she has for him—word after word, sentence after sentence—until her book becomes an entire garden for her big brother.
Valentine’s memoir released last summer in the midst of renewed Black Lives Matter protests over police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and more: all of whom should be named, but the list goes on, unending. That its release coincided was happenstance: it only proves the cycle, ceaselessly spinning while activists and families work to break it. “It has begun to happen to us,” she writes after a friend’s death. “The boys we know are beginning to die.” Valentine’s memoir joins a tradition of authors cutting through viral clips to remind us of the lives that matter, both of their specificity and of their complexity. In place of collapsing him for soundbites, Valentine bears witness to Junior’s various selves: “I must be willing to see it all if I am to see you.”
As an educator, it struck me that Valentine’s memoir echoes Tupac’s poem “The Rose That Grew From Concrete,” layering its premise with her own experiences of trauma. Valentine learns from her siblings to develop a personality “built to fight, built not to trust the world. They show me what it is to grow up.” Teaching Black children to grow in this way—however unspoken, it remains insidious—is a shameful, dehumanizing piece of this nation’s identity, a nation insisting that “this is not who we are” as white supremacy rears its ugly head again and again. At various points, Valentine speaks to the sheer exhaustion of moving through the world as a young Black girl, learning in school to wear her “fear as apathy,” and coming to see survival itself as a form of grief. She watches that grief grow alongside her, like a weed around the stem of her life.
A throughline of Valentine’s memoir—its unasked but ever-present question—is why we would want children to grow in spite of the system rather than because of it. To do that, we would have to raze the garden of our nation’s soil, to replace it with new soil capable of nurturing seeds. In the meantime, artists and writers like Valentine offer their work as a hope against hope:
The flowers themselves are prayers to me: You will be okay. I want to embody the blooms, the beauty of them, and transfer them to my family, to Junior and to all the boys like him, to all the ones in prison, to the ones in the street who believe they’re free but are not, to the mothers and fathers and the sisters and the brothers. You are beautiful. I see you. Look how beautiful you are.
Valentine senses in herself that her “very existence could be a prayer.” In this way, Valentine is all names at once: the flower, the prayer, the living being. Her growth becomes a prayer that others will be able to, that a new garden will remove the rotten soil of American whiteness, that we will live into a different era where natural cycles of life and death replace the violent cycles we know too well. It’s true that love is watching someone die, but no one should have to bear witness to this process before they have fully bloomed. With The Names of All the Flowers, Valentine prays with her whole being that different gardens are still possible to grow.