They are gathered at the curbside altar on a clear November night. In this cold world, it is unseasonably warm for this time of year. Side by side, at the shoulder, they are holding the weight of insurmountable grief. The twenty-plus glass-encased white wax altar candles are arranged with precision on the concrete garden container drain, the city’s answer to the pervasive flooded roadways. The flood of light from the candles renders the streetlight insignificant, as it illuminates their loss in community so they might not drown in their grief. The curbside altar was erected at the site of their loved one’s death. Seventeen years old. They are not much older, if at all. The same age as my son Julian at the time of his Earthly departure.
In community, they can be seen and offer each other comfort. Empathic and emphatic witness. In conversation with Maori Karmael Holmes of the Many Lumens podcast, Sonia Sanchez said, “We need company for our screams.” To see each other in our despair is essential in healing through grief; as Malidoma Patrice Somé expressed in Ritual: Power, Healing, and Community, “it is the presence of the community that validates the expression of grief.” Put another way, “grief-work is community work,” according to Renita Walker in our April 2021 Instagram Live discussion titled “Can We Talk About Grief?” I watch from my car, at the stop sign a quarter block from where my youngest son attended preschool. My heart aches in my chest. I take a deep breath to try and release the pain through an exhale. I say a prayer for their protection and one for an easeful transition for their beloved.
My therapist tells me that she is shocked at the number of Black women my age who have lost children. And lost is such an interesting word to describe the sudden and premature death of young people who now exist beyond this realm. Baby faces with the fat still full at the highest peaks in their cheeks, immortalized on RIP T-shirts and other adornments. The RIP T-shirt, a moving memorial. An announcement of a life that mattered and shall be honored. A show of solidarity with other mourners that signal one is not alone in their grief. The RIP T-shirt may be rooted in ancestor reverence and part of a practice that also includes other adornments such as buttons, pins, and charm necklaces. Some of these keepsakes have also assisted families with raising funds for funeral-related expenses.
Filmmaker Keisha Rae Witherspoon has described her 2019 film T as following “three grieving participants of Miami’s annual T Ball, where folks assemble to model RIP T-shirts and innovative costumes designed in honor of their dead.” In relation to the RIP T-shirt, Witherspoon asks in “For Trayvon For Tupac And Their Mothers,” published in Seen journal, “Is it simply remembrance or is it plumage? Is it a cape or perhaps a skin—a shroud of our loved ones’ DNA that might travel with us, warm and protect us?” Loved ones in the beyond, literally watching over us.
The RIP T-shirt has multiple origin stories in Black cultures. Growing up in the hood, in a Mid-Atlantic city, the earliest shirts I remember were from the ’90s and consisted of colorful airbrushed images and/or lettering on white T-shirts. The music I listened to was full of tribute tags of names of the artists’ dead homies. New Orleans-based No Limit Records consistently lifted up the names of their departed loved ones. One of my favorite tributes remains the 1997 song “RIP Jill” from the former No Limit Records artist Mia X. Released the same year one of my childhood friends was a victim of gun violence at fifteen. The same year my dad died.
I imagine that it will be a lifetime adjustment to the sight of my son’s face on T-shirts and other items of tribute. A few months after his death, the youth league football association he played for, created, and presented me with a banner with his picture on the field during their homecoming, part of which read “Our Favorite #5.” His former football mate wrote his name and number on his game-day football cleats. Then there was his friend’s neck tattoo. The early shirts his mentor had printed. The one-off shirts and adornments that people created with their favorite images. The T-shirt project that commemorated victims of violence in our county–names written in black marker on multicolored T-shirts hanging on PVC frames. A painted image of his likeness with a pair of larger-than-life angel wings on the mobile lending library housed at the local YMCA, where he spent an abundance of time playing basketball. The same location of his public memorial service.
I live in a city full of curbside altars. Sites of remembrance and reverence. Teddy bears that have weathered the conditions of outside. Mylar balloons tied to stop signs. Empty liquor bottles, some of whose contents were most likely used to pour libations. Faux foliage wrapped around the spines of street signs. Prayer beads. Pictures. A reminder to all who pass. A long-standing altar outside the first elementary school where I tried my hand at teaching. The school, now vacant and deteriorating, haunted. Its black metal fence sags like our hope amidst the devastation.
On an August day when the grief was grating on my nerves, I was scheduled to talk about my lived experience with gun violence at the state capitol. One of my son’s friends stopped by our house to ask if he could record footage using my son’s nearly curbside basketball hoop for his music video. The basketball hoop, a memory holder and now a memorial site. On what would have been his twenty-second Earthside birthday, I placed balloons, white carnations, and baby’s breath at the base of the hoop. My mom set up an altar out back of her house on his birthday. She used one of the T-shirts printed by his mentor to cover a small chair that sat atop a table.
The basketball hoop was a gift from his dad when he was about eight years old. Throughout the years, people of all ages have tried their luck on the hoop. Too-short toddlers in need of a boost to shoot their shot. Elders passing by on their morning walk, testing their limits and checking to see if they still had it. Diagonally, across the street someone carved “RIP JUJU” into the newly laid sidewalk while it was still wet shortly after his transition.
A few months ago, on a day that I usually work in the office, I peeked outside because I heard noise, a mix of running mouths and motors. When I lifted the curtain, I could see two people preparing to throw my son’s basketball hoop into what looked like a truck being used to haul unwanted items. As I opened the door to confront them, the year-old landlord of the neighboring property—and the responsible party—emerged and halfheartedly apologized. He said that he didn’t know who it belonged to because it had been there so long. My whole being shouted in return: “YES, IT’S BEEN HERE A FOR A LONG TIME BECAUSE WE HAVE LIVED HERE FOR A LONG TIME.”
When I ride by a few weeks later, the curbside altar has disappeared. Perhaps it disrupted the aesthetic sensibilities of the people who lived nearby in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. If there is no trace of what happened, did it happen in their neighborhood? There are no candles. No flames waving in the frigid December air, now unseasonably cold, even for this time of year. And yet, rituals of remembrance say they will be back. They will return on birthdays. The anniversary of his ascension. On really difficult days. And good ones, too.
I move beyond the stop sign and drive towards home, a prayer in my throat.