Part 1. An African American Day of the Dead? How it became personal for me.
For a while now, I have been thinking about how the Mexican celebration, Day of the Dead, could become a tradition for the African American community — my community — a community with a particular proximity to death and trauma. It is a tall order by any standard, let alone the question of whether Mexican or Black communities would even be receptive to this idea. Yet by the winter of 2017, and culminating in a long car ride from Washington, D.C., to Chicago for Christmas, I knew I had to embark on this journey to help build a new cross-cultural bridge, and now I am beginning my first film to document the process: Altars: A Cross-Cultural Day of the Dead.
For years I have attended Day of the Dead — Dia de los Muertos — festivities with my Latino friends in Washington, D.C., where I live. As my friends passionately engaged in the tradition, initially I would quietly stand at the back of the party and soak it all in. I needed to observe before actively participating. This was not my tradition, and I tried to remain humble, to learn before jumping in. This film is me jumping headfirst into the deep end.
What I saw, I can only describe as remarkable. These “parties” I had been invited to were much more than parties. My friends’ apartments were elaborately decorated with vibrant skulls, flowers, and large altars with objects and photos of loved ones who had passed away. Their homes became dazzling, and unexpectedly (at least for me), welcoming environments for celebrating Mexican and Latino culture, while also confronting the debilitating emotions that come with losing a loved one. I began to recognize these colorful gatherings as something akin to a cultural “safe space” that simultaneously allowed everyone to celebrate life, invigorate community, and participate, de facto, in a large group therapy session where it was okay to cry and grieve over the loss of loved ones.
As a race, culture, and politics journalist I have witnessed and analyzed the growing call from African Americans and other people of color for the creation of cultural safe spaces. This movement has grown out of our collective grief and trauma following the public deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Gardner, Sandra Bland, and many others, along with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Following each death, and countless other less public tragedies, our communities have constructed altars, painted murals, and spread the images of those who have died so senselessly, so that they would not be forgotten. Our communities have created environments where we could discuss the evils that took these lives too soon, and the disproportionate impact on African Americans of systemic racism, police brutality, and an unjust criminal justice system.
I began to believe that an annual celebration of Day of the Dead could provide structures for my community to support our grief. The spontaneous altars and expressions that emerged in the wake of so much tragedy have a lot in common with Day of the Dead, yet there is one subtle, but key, distinction that has captivated my attention: Day of the Dead is proactive rather than reactive. By proactively celebrating a community each year, its culture is strengthened beyond oppressive forces, and without being antagonistic. It is a celebration, not an attack, nor a reaction to being attacked.
All cultures have traditions and practices to honor and remember someone immediately after a death. We all need this to help with the grieving process, but as time passes we often struggle to keep their memory alive, and preserve the sliver of culture that they once occupied. Throughout 2015 and 2016 during the presidential campaign, I watched activist groups struggle to transform from a movement forged in response to deadly, racially-motivated attacks, into a proactive movement that could reshape American politics. I was struck by a vital need within the Black community for an affirmative structure, or safe space, for both grieving the loss of Black lives, and strengthening and celebrating our community, history, and culture. In 2017, following Trump’s inauguration, I observed the continued vigilance of minority and progressive communities to combat oppression and racism, and kept my eyes open for transformative initiatives that were more proactive than reactive.
With each passing day, I grew increasingly more committed to understanding this complex cultural puzzle. During these years I analyzed Day of the Dead and America’s turbulent social changes through racial, cultural, political, and philosophical lenses — and I’ll get to these in future posts — but the first tipping point was distinctly personal.
In late 2017, my cousin Arthur Leon Holmes III passed away, and the idea of celebrating Day of the Dead within the Black community was no longer merely theoretical or conceptual for me. His death was unexpected. He was still in his 20s, and shockingly he had died in his sleep one quiet night. His death was not violent, but it was a stark reminder of Black lives lost all too soon.
At his funeral in Ohio, I saw my uncle and aunt struggle mightily over the loss, while I mostly remained stoic and relatively unemotional. In many ways, I externally exuded the puritan American compulsion to bury emotions, move on, and stay strong, but internally I knew these feeble expressions were inadequate, and had likely failed me for years. Ardee and I were not close. We weren’t that close in age, and he lived the farthest away of any of my other cousins. There was never much imperative to build that community, and I had not realized how tragic this failing was until he passed away.
Soon after Ardee’s death, my uncle announced that he was creating a college scholarship to help keep his son’s memory alive. I decided to call my uncle more often. My uncle needed to sort through his son’s belongings — many of which contained the name they shared — and I could tell that he needed some support.
My uncle is an Ivy League graduate and regular churchgoer (my grandfather, his father, Arthur Leon Holmes, was a minister), but I saw how institutions and society at large were not providing him with enough structures to address his loss. After one phone call, I realized that celebrating Day of the Dead, an annual tradition, or “safe space,” to display Ardee’s image and belongings, and share stories about his life, could greatly aid in the grieving process.
Since then, my commitment to creating a cross-cultural Day of the Dead that extends into the Black community has grown considerably. For the rest of 2017, and into 2018, I researched and developed this project from as many angles as I could think of (race, politics, culture, linguistics, and philosophy). I considered various media platforms (essays, podcasts, webisodes, film) and decided that a documentary is the first step in telling this story. Altars will span Mexico, my own roots in Africa and connections between Day of the Dead, African rituals, and other indigenous traditions. We’ll connect with vibrant African American and Latino communities in the U.S., starting in Atlanta, my hometown, and Washington, D.C.
This film will not only be a compelling, emotional journey, but will also show people how to make their own safe space for remembering their departed loved ones, and celebrating their culture.
Thank you for reading and I can’t wait to share more of this journey with you.