The only marker is often graffiti spray-painted on an obscure wall, an undecipherable visual message whose meaning we all know. Local friends sometimes print a few t-shirts with a faded edge of the bloom of youth with “R.I.P.” underneath. Funeral directors have become adept at displaying the remains with knock-offs of Gucci hats shaped like ball caps. The news is usually confined to a section of the city, the verbal underground, a transition on the late night news, a brief notice published in the paper.
It’s a familiar rite to many in the black community; a place where too many youth die too soon. I have sat bewildered and worn down at viewings of children who I played with when their legs were engines of joy, moving them with physical freedom from place to place, staking out love and confidence. It seemed odd that their legs would never move again, that they wouldn’t run to my arms if I called. It was odd that they were loved, dead, and still teens.
With no national roll, no quilt unfolded on the National Mall, no candlelight remembrance, no web site that friends visit and update, their disappearance and death is a sterile removal from our lives, an absence that doesn’t have a way to communicate its emptiness, a loss that whirls and whirls just out of reach of our comfort, steps beyond our grief and tilts our way forward. As time fades the death of any youth, it doesn’t end the pain. The fade ends up being a hole you step around or over, like a crack in the sidewalk nobody fixes.
Every so often, through the sheer force of our collective lives, something ties together the distended threads and we are seized by a time of national mourning; a time when one death symbolizes every death. For some. The GOP candidates who claim their thought and soul is the right choice for America have not participated in our national weeping time. Are they without tears? Why is their outrage reserved for apologizes over burned Korans?
I have cited Susie King Taylor before, a Savannah teenager educated by private lessons, a young enslaved woman who was present at the first emancipation celebration on Hilton Head in 1863. Later she wrote the only African-American memoir of the Civil War by an enslaved woman. She served in Hilton Head with Harriet Tubman and Clara Barton, where all three spent time tending the sick and wounded and burying the war dead—youth themselves from all over the country, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts fighting for the cause of liberty and union, fighting to preserve a nation divided. These youth gave their lives as a sacrifice to reaffirm its highest ideals.
On December 30, 1864, at Honey Hill, a few hours from Charleston, SC not far from I-95, a fierce civil war battle clogged a stream with causalities from both sides. The Savannah Republican noted: “We made a visit to the field the following day, and found the swamp and road literally strewn with their dead.”
Lt. Col William Warren Marple, commanding officer of the 34th USCT (a South Carolina regiment of African-American volunteers) described the battle:
I was to hold a cross road near this Creek and prevent reinforcements from passing from Charleston to the Battlefield -
I at once ordered the skirmish line to advance . . . In ten seconds the Air was full of Shrapnell and Grape & Canister thrown by the enemy . . . I had none killed – 6 of the Men were badly wounded, two mortal all were brought from the field. . .
Things were in great confusion that night – . . .The Next morning – the good friend the Spade was brought into use & we now hold the position. We hear nothing from Sherman
Four Union regiments of South Carolina Volunteers, the 33rd, 34th, 35th, and the 102nd USCT, held positions near Bolan’s Church or led charges. The “Secesh” (Confederates) used rice dikes as defensive perimeters. Twenty-one year old boatman, runaway slave, and Illinois volunteer Corporal Andrew Jackson Smith won the Medal of Honor for valor for saving the 55th Mass. regimental colors. The wounded were carried on stretchers made from muskets and blankets.
Today, we have youth dying for stereotypes. Their bodies strapped to gurneys. Their youthful valor besmirched without fair or just cause.
Walking down a sidewalk wearing a hoodie, talking to his girl friend, carrying a package of cheap candy in his pocket, Trayvon Martin alerted on a man who appeared to be following him, and became worried. Urged by his girl friend, both familiar with the dangers that could suddenly arise for innocent youth, he quickened his step. But he sought to preserve his dignity and self respect. Only a few minutes later, he was crying for help. His cries are loud enough to be heard through the walls of callers inside their homes, expressing their own fear of going out. His shouts are loud enough so the words are distinct to any third party ear: “Help! Help! Help!” The response was heard in those 911 calls. In sequence, on each line is the abrupt pop of a single gun shot.
Susie Taylor King, in a brilliant passage tells of encountering death and its final futility as she walked to and from camp on Morris Island (South Carolina; the setting for the movie, “Glory”) a year after its famous battle:
Outside of the fort were many skulls lying about; I have often moved them one side out of the path. The comrades and I would have quite a debate as to which side the men fought on. Some thought they were the skulls of our boys; others thought they were the enemy’s; but as there was no definite way to know, it was never decided which could lay claim to them. They were a gruesome sight, those fleshless heads and grinning jaws, but by this time I had become accustomed to worse things and did not feel as I might have earlier in my camp life.
It seems strange how our aversion to seeing suffering is overcome in war,–how we are able to see the most sickening sights, such as men with their limbs blown off and mangled by the deadly shells, without a shudder; and instead of turning away, how we hurry to assist in alleviating their pain, bind up their wounds, and press the cool water to their parched lips, with feelings only of sympathy and pity.
We are sickened we can not offer water to the dead lips of Travyon Martin. But each of us must find a way to share the deeper meaning of his death beyond our grief and fear. His death is a territory we must invade and a battle we must win. For the meaning of death is hallowed if it brings peace.