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For my cousin Armand, who we lost on April 16, 2020, to COVID-19 complications.
For all of us, called by name.
"And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth. And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go."John 11:43-45, Holy Bible, New King James Version
Once, I heard my name yelled in a flurry of fear. My dear friend in Oakland and I were on one of our weekly calls—a Sunday of giggles, as usual. She was walking back home after picking up some dinner. I was doing laundry in Birmingham. I remember she mentioned some boys she passed by, and I remember the sound of struggle. The sound of terror and bodies against bodies, bodies against pavement. A scream I will never forget. My name, yelled into the night when I could not reach her.
The silence that followed felt impossibly long. All I could hear was my own name, reverberating in the world of that scream, for the hours it took to verify that she was alive. Ashley! over and again. I felt the weight of my alive against the uncertainty of her silence.
Lazarus! Lazarus! Lazarus!
Though James Brown didn't sing about Lazarus, Chadwick Boseman has me believing he did. He1 is one of those men who can make anything look like truth, any story made real in his able hands. It's no secret I love a man who can sing and dance and walk like he's got black wings. I have imagined his name on the end of a hyphen, making me Ashley Jones-Boseman. But that name will live in imagination forever. Chadwick is much older than I am. He is already married, and most importantly, I will never meet him. At least, not here on Earth—when this paragraph began, Chadwick was alive.
In the movie, Chadwick-James and Bobby Byrd meet while James is in prison. They sing "Mary Don't You Weep" and Chadwick's meandering, easy growl makes a song about Jesus swing. But what's missing from the real Famous Flames' song is the repeated "Lazarus!" that is integral to the song's emotional swell. Sure, anyone could argue that James Brown's mere being is an emotional swell. I would argue that—have you heard that man sing? Only James could sing "neck bones, turnips, candied yams, smothered steak!" and make it sound like a cry to the Lord.2 The passionate naming of the food makes my body full. Aretha's version calls Lazarus' name with every bit of Holy Ghost due to a preacher's daughter, or a Black woman who does indeed know what it means to be pulled by God.
To be named—and the naming makes life.
I wish I could say I have never imagined my own death. I wish I could say that I have never frequently imagined my own death. I wish I could say I don't spend time hoping the media wouldn't misrepresent me. Not because I'm famous (I'm not) or because I have any kind of salacious secrets which the media would be eager to grab (I don't). I imagine, more often than is healthy, news stories carrying my hashtag, images of me accompanied by "unarmed Black woman." I wonder how they'd interview my family, how someone on Fox News would try to say I was asking to die. I imagine the way the hashtag will start to fade into a distant memory, a headline swept like dust.
See also: That's not actually true
At least, I sometimes think, my poetry will carry my name, giving me new life as long as it exists. At least, if my name is added to a list of "shot by police" or "concerned citizens stand their ground," there will be something other than thinkpieces, Twitter posts, and a place in the long line of Killed Black People to keep my memory burning. Maybe someone will tell stories of my outfits of the day, or of my loud singing in the car, or the tray of homemade doughnuts I always photographed but rarely shared. Maybe they'll say 'Ashley, who was bad at sentence diagramming.' Or 'Ashley, who made first chair clarinet in the sixth grade.'
I wonder if Araminta Ross watched over Harriet Tubman once she was gone. You might say, 'Ashley, don't you know Araminta Ross and Harriet Tubman are the same person?' And I'll say of course I know they shared a body. Of course I know Araminta Ross became Araminta Tubman after she married John, and of course I know she changed her name to Harriet, her mother's name, after escaping to freedom. Of course these things are true.
But what you're missing, reader, is that one body can re-identify.
When I was young, I used to hate my name. I thought it was too white, too plain, too boring. I thought it would be cooler if people called me AJ or if my middle name, Michelle, was actually my first. I loathed sharing a name with so many '90s babies. When people didn't articulate properly, my little heart sank when "actually" wasn't actually a call for my attention. I wanted something smoother, something more exciting than what I'd been given. I walked with a cloud covering me because that name was also the same name in which I learned to hate myself—my face, my smile, my legs, my knobby knees. It was the name I carried when I called myself ugly and unloved every single day.
But I re-identified.
When I started writing poems that excited me, when I started publishing and teaching and stepping into a new plane of being. When I looked at myself and said yes instead of if only someone else, my name was new. I was new. I was not the Ashley of before. I was, instead, Ashley M. Jones. I was someone who the other Ashley could watch and love from the beyond. No, I did not die, but I did transform. My soul was the same, yes, but I finally heard it singing to me. I could make a joyful song and a song filled with pain. This was a new life for me, and so my old self had to ascend to the place where ancestors go. She reminds me of what was and what doesn't have to be any longer.
I think she must have known it was time to bury that girl who loved her mother so. I think it was time to bury that woman who knew a life of bondage and of family nearby. She had to become a new self. I wonder so often if Araminta watched over Harriet, delicately and kindly. If she watched her as she slept in uncertain forests and trees, so close to those terrorizing lawmen. I wonder if Araminta held Harriet when she was scared, if she laughed with her when she found herself alone and surrounded by unending night.
Did Araminta call out to Harriet? Did Harriet know Araminta's was also the voice of God?
Armand, dear cousin, after you died I did not call you by name for a long time, afraid of what might happen if I conjured you back into being in this realm of earthly memory that is always so inexact. But naming you I've found makes you feel closer to me. We shared a first initial, a grandmother, and an ability to tell long stories. When I was younger, it was hard for me to understand how you could be my cousin and be as old as my parents. I thought only uncles could be that old. I thought maybe someone was mistaken—you weren't our cousin really, you were just a secret uncle. You had a smirk that could guard secrets. What secrets did you take with you, my lost cousin?
When it's really still—sometimes in the daytime, sometimes in an uncertain nighttime hour, I hear you laughing. I see you at our kitchen table, awaiting breakfast in your Bugs Bunny shirt. Or was it a Six Flags shirt? Was it a Six Flags shirt with Bugs Bunny on it? I wish I could hold these details now that you're gone.
I don't know what you wore in your casket those months ago. I don't know if they made sure your socks were scrunched just right. Remember at Disney World, how it was so hot? I didn't think to look at your ankles then—I was only nine, and socks were not my focus, I'm sorry—but right now, I imagine you had them scrunched perfectly in that '90s way. I imagine your socks were always clean, neat and tidy like you. I can see you, Armand, laughing over breakfast, telling a story I'm not following but that will come back to me after you're gone. And your smile—why didn't I see its treasure then?
There's so much in a name, what we name the things that hurt us. I've heard people say that George Floyd "died." Yes, he died, but because of what? George Floyd was murdered. Emmett Till was murdered. Tony McDade was murdered. Sandra Bland was murdered. Philando Castile was murdered. Breonna Taylor was murdered. The difference between "death" and "murder" is immeasurable. Well, maybe that's not true. A lot lives in the difference between death and murder. Maybe, like Lorde says, it's like the difference between poetry and rhetoric. Maybe when you say "George Floyd died," what I hear is "he passed away through no wrongdoing" or "it was an unfortunate accident," or "one less here to muck things up."
When I say "murder," I'm saying:
Columbus crossed the ocean blue in 1492 and yes, he created a new world, one which was punctuated, fertilized, tilled, by murder and rape and the blood of so many people who made the honest mistake of thinking human life mattered.
Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence while owning slaves and raping one in particular, Sally Hemings. Sally was the one who made it into the history books. Whose name got lost in the fine print? And how fine that print was—all men created equal unless you are, in fact, not a "man." Unless you're one of those incapable of reason, sweaty, degenerate Blacks who make things tick at picturesque Monticello.3
The prison industrial complex. The [in]justice system.
George Wallace lost the Alabama gubernatorial race when he first ran in 1958. It was not until he got backed by the Ku Klux Klan that he won, and made way for the infamous inauguration speech in which he called for segregation forever in opposition to the "tyrannical" forces of Washington and the push for civil rights. The KKK is an American terrorist organization. How many elected officials have been or are still affiliated with them? Who makes the laws and who enforces them? Is the ink dried under a ghostly hood?
I have seen too many dead bodies. That's when I saw you, mostly, Armand. At funerals. And yet, I was not able to attend yours. I used to think it strange and funny when you and your mother would come down taking disposable camera snapshots of everything, even the casket. But now, I can't even pull out a picture of you in your funeral suit, or you going into the ground. The sad smiles of family filing in and out of your repast. I only have your name and the pictures it conjures in my mind.
My maternal grandmother was named Willie Lee. It always struck me as special that she would have a man's name. She wasn't a pink frilly woman, at least when I knew her. She was strong. Solid. She wore big glasses. She filled her coffee cup to the absolute brim and never spilled a drop.
My grandmother was named Ola Bell. As a child, I imagined this meant she had some sort of ringing, some sort of constant song within her. And I think she did, but I wonder how much of that song was stolen by my abusive grandfather, William. But his is a name that never mattered to me, because we just called him bad. We called him the dark spot lingering in the gazes of my aunts and uncles, in the gaze of my father. My grandfather did not know my name. He never knew the name of anyone who could look at him with love and not fear.
See also: Our Toni
Sometimes I wonder what my future children will call my parents—Grandma, Grandpa? We called my maternal grandmother Willie Lee something special—"Murr," a shortened version of "Muh-dear." My dad called his mom "Muh-dear," which is a shortened version of "mother dear." But we called her Grandma Ola. We called her hello and not much else because kids are often afraid of older people. I was. There was a picture, black and white and almost fading into nonexistence, of Grandma Ola and her mother, Granny, who sat, eyes always closed to the world in her easy chair. In that photo, these women were called by name. In that photo, they still live upright and unafflicted and alive.
When I say "murder," I'm calling George Floyd by his rightful name—worthy of life. We cannot do what Jesus did for Lazarus, but we can call his name and let his life resound for, as the story says, the benefit of those who don't believe.
Lazarus! Lazarus! Lazarus!
Armand was not your first name. I didn't learn this until I was in my 20s, when you friended me on Facebook. I remember the distant, silent picture that did not match the cousin I knew to be effervescent and unmistakable in voice and in body. William, a name I only associate with our grandfather who I never knew, but whose memory remained a horror even down to the youngest of us. He was a brutal man, our parents say, our uncles say. Your own mother, Armand, would tell us how he made her leave because she was not his own. It is only now that I realize you shared his first name. And when I think of how fiercely she loved you, I wonder if this was her second chance at making that name mean something more like life instead of the violence and death it brought with that grandfather we never knew. Were you called to give new life to him?
There was an hour on that day when I thought you might be alive. My aunt's text had said "it's over now," which made me think maybe you'd heard your name called again and again in prayer and fought back to join us. I thought, for that hour, that we had misunderstood the text. That it was really the voice of God calling you back, that we would all make it out of that hour in a world that made sense.
It's over now. Your struggle, yes, but also my foothold on what this life really is. You are not the first cousin I've lost. I'm sad to say that. But I got to see the other two one last time. Yes, I saw the spirit of death on them, but I could see them breathing, call them by name, and watch them smile back at me. I could hear them say goodbye. I could remember their bodies with their souls still inside. Armand, where were you before you were locked away in the hospital? What did you eat? Who said goodbye in a fleeting way, who got to wave back from your last earthly wave?
If I could, I surely would—
Understand that no one wants to be Lazarus. Black people do not want to hear their names called and Tweeted and put on T-shirts to gain a new life in American infamy.
We don't want our names added to lists or stacked up in the throats of wailing mothers. We don't want to have to wait for Jesus to come find us and call us back to an earth that made a meal of us.
I don't know how it feels to die. I don't know what it feels like to know my last breath is coming, that I'll never taste my mom's cornbread dressing again, that I'll never complain about an Orlando timeshare again, that I'll never suffer through the VHS of Cats with my cousin Armand sleeping softly in a chair just a few feet away. I don't know if Armand heard his name when I prayed for him to live, if God had already called him home, giving him new life on the other side. I don't know why our wails weren't as powerful as Mary's or Martha's, why he couldn't rise again for the benefit of you who don't believe. I know I didn't see this coming.
I know that I expected him to die quicker by a cop's hand than by the fallout of a virus I couldn't have dreamed up if I wanted to. I know that Armand loved us, our family and our people. I know he cared deeply about our power and our pride.
I know he knew my name.
- At the time that this essay was written, Chadwick Boseman was alive. He passed away mid-way through composition, but I prefer to keep present tense verbs for the first little while. It's hard to let go.
- From James Brown's "Make it Funky," 1971.
- Jefferson discussed his views on the inability for Black people to reason, specifically citing Phillis Wheatley in Notes on the State of Virginia.