In Loving Memory of Our Icons Who Loved Us So Well
Whenever someone significant to the Black community passes away, my whole world stops. My heart starts beating in a different rhythm and I have to drop everything I’m doing, sometimes even if I can’t afford to. I constantly refresh my social media feed and take in every tribute I can find from people who loved them. Yes, I am that person™️ who will shamelessly spam your TL with reposted photos and tributes that put their life and work into context as I reflect on their legacies
Toni Morrison was the first celebrity death I ever cried over. On the day her transition was announced, I silently wept as I immediately whipped out her novel, “The Bluest Eye” – which I first read in 7th grade – and reread the whole thing overnight. I hadn’t been able to name my favorite author before her passing. Her name is now always the first that comes to mind.
Kobe Bryant was next for me. With the news of his passing, I instantly heard the voices of every black boy in my life yell KOBE as they shot paper basketballs into trash can “hoops” from across the room.
Then came Chadwick Boseman. I was in such shock when his death was announced that my first reaction was hysterical laughter, as I sat next to my best friend who also seemed to be in shock. I didn’t cry until I watched a clip of him singing in Da 5 Bloods.
The most recent in this line of iconic people passing is Cicely Tyson. What can I even say? The life and legacy of the matriarch of Black America are too great to form into words. My generation watched her grace our screens in the Tyler Perry films our parents loved, and later as “Anna Mae’s” mother in How to Get Away With Murder. Tears fell immediately after I saw the news, and the night I planned to binge Living Single was usurped by my longing to consume the book she had dropped just 2 days prior, Just As I Am, via audiobook. Her comforting voice carried me to sleep that night.
These particular deaths have hit me so hard because each of these people LOVED BLACK PEOPLE. They saw us. They knew us. They honored us with every ounce of their work and refused to take on anything that might communicate less. It is dangerously easy to take on work that disparages Black people for the sake of a check; to encounter those who reject that temptation because they want to represent us well is a beautiful thing to behold.
Toni dedicated every piece of her writing to centering the lives, experiences, and even language of Black people and intentionally subverting the white gaze. Chadwick refused roles that would perpetuate harmful or outdated Black stereotypes and Black women felt safe with him. Kobe consistently used his platform to raise his voice about racial injustice. And Queen Mother Cecily made sure she never played a role that demeaned Black women.
Because Black people are united by a common struggle and uplifted by a communal love, losing these icons is more than just losing another highly visible figure. It feels like losing a grandmother who raised our chin to meet their eyes as they affirmed our “somebody-ness” and yelled at our mothers from the porch for not feeding us enough. It feels like losing the cousin we were always excited to see at the family reunion. It feels like eating at the dinner table with an ever-present awareness that a seat is empty, never to be filled again.
I grieve these people with almost the same heaviness as I would my own biological family members. In these moments, the words of Revelation 14:13 comfort me the most: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”
I won’t pretend to know the hearts of each of these extraordinary people, but I know they each claimed to be our brothers and sisters in the faith. And their lives’ fruit showed it to be true. So, I take comfort in knowing that they now rest from their labor as they commune with our Father in heaven.
That God would grant us the blessing of their presence in the midst of our struggle is nothing less than divine favor that we should never take for granted. Our legendary ancestors now join the “great cloud of witnesses” whose examples of faith made alive by their work encourage us to stay the course in our own journeys. May we take up their mantles with reckless abandon.