I’ve often wondered what happened to the American ritual of wearing a black armband when someone in the family dies. The practice is immortalized in the 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life, where John Bailey’s wears one after his father passes away. In some cultures black attire is worn for a year after a death. And in others, a widow must wear black until the end of her days. It is human to mark death in a public way.
Unfortunately, today’s urban youth live with a nearly daily awareness of death, and it’s not just grandparents who are dying, either. These are violent times, and it’s youth who forfeit their lives. Young people of color in urban areas seem to have an inordinate amount of death to contend with on a regular basis. Just how do they handle the burden of so much loss? They embrace it and wear it like armor, and in the process, they bring their love and grief into the most unexpected places.
In the past seven years of teaching, I’ve seen the emergence of a new and profound display of grief from young people in my classes. More than ever, the relics of their fallen peers are captured and worn in daily vigil. Tee shirts are emblazoned with the bright face of a friend, a cousin or a sister; epitaphs on shirts, badges and decals to the dearly departed commemorate the loved ones and keep the beloved alive in the hearts and minds of their community. Decorated with the photos of the fondest memories of the deceased, family and friends wear buttons and placards on lanyards. Quite literally, the dead go to college, work and the movies with their living friends.
The result is magical. It humanizes the youth who wear these tokens of love, while at the same time revering the deceased. These tokens of love are a clear source of hope, respect and grief. Moreover, they bring awareness and compassion to the wearer, who more than ever needs the visibility and the loving gaze of others. This is essential since grief makes people do strange things; it can alter their personality or cause erratic behavior. Without a clear external sign, how can others know that errant comportment is possibly connected to a major life transition?
The death of a loved one does not easily fade from memory or dull with time. The ritual of wearing a tribute signals to others the status of the wearer: “I’m hurting.” “Handle me with care.” “Compassion needed.” “I’ve lost a dear one.” There is no way to turn away from such an outpouring, to not look with understanding at the person in pain.
As teachers, we need to know when our students are suffering so we can share their burden. It can mean not asking for what he or she may not be able to give on a particular day. As co-workers, community members and friends we can greet these youth with kindness and much-needed compassion in a fast-moving world that too often denies the harsh realities of young people of color. We can grieve with our youth, express condolences and sympathies, and be patient with them. The stress and heartache caused by death is well documented. That’s not new. What has changed is our society, which seems to have become anesthetized to the pain caused by violence and untimely death, especially that of other people’s children. That is why Generation Y has taken to demonstrating their grief in a public way. It’s a form of resistance to the status quo. It’s a loving anthem that cries out, “Every life matters.”
Here’s a picture of Giovanni, who last year almost always wore a tribute to his deceased friend to school.