MAXWELL:  Glorifying death becomes way of life

4/19/2000 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Before departing the Big Apple last Monday afternoon, I put in a few hours at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem to investigate cycles of economic revival in the mostly black community.

On 115th Street, I was pulled to the sounds of a funeral procession outside a nearby church. The service was for an 18-year-old African-American male killed in a gang fight several days earlier. I was struck that instead of wearing dark suits and ties, the teen pallbearers wore T-shirts bearing the image of the victim, his name and the words “The Ho’s Nigga.” Not only were the pallbearers wearing the T-shirt but most of the dozens of other teenagers wore it also.

A stranger to the neighborhood, I did not have to see inside the casket to know that the dead boy had long braided hair, sported a gold earring, had a tattoo of Tupac Shakur on his right deltoid and wore the best FUBU. In short, the T-shirt told much of his story.

I was intrigued because, that morning, I had read an article in the New York Times about young mourners in New Orleans and elsewhere who wear such T-shirts, called “dead man shirts.” As far as I know, the shirts have been around since the early 1980s. I saw my first ones in Fort Lauderdale.

According to the New York Times, the shirts “commemorate the lives of young murder victims who often have died in gang-related killings.” Although the shirts are now used to commemorate the lives of older people who died of natural causes, their major significance is among the hip-hop generation where death, themes of death and images of gun violence lace the music and other parts of the group’s lifestyle.

“The whole notion of the dead man T-shirt might have gotten its impetus in rap music,” Cal Wiltz, a professor of sociology at Dillard University in New Orleans told the New York Times, “because there is a tendency in rap to sanctify the deceased and make them almost bigger in death than they were in life. The shirt is a way of expressing that in something tangible.”

Indeed, images of death pervade hip-hop and the very real lives of its devotees. Hardly does a month pass that a dead rap star does not grace a magazine cover or is not the subject of a lengthy article. The Notorious B.I.G., gunned down on a city street in 1997, eyes readers from the cover of the April special anniversary issue of Spin magazine.

In the same issue, prominent mention is made of Tupac, slained in the same manner six months earlier.

The May issue of Vibe magazine has no less than two major articles about the young and the dead. One is about Big Pun (1971-2000). Directly following the piece about Big Pun, Vibe serves up an essay describing the gruesome murders of 8-year-old Leroy Brown Jr. and his mother in Bridgeport, Conn. The editors saw fit to publish a shot of the boy’s open casket.

And here in St. Petersburg, where I live and work, the death of young people on the city’s mostly black south side is a cause celebre. When a police officer shot and killed 18-year-old TyRon Lewis in 1996, an idolization of the young man began and shows no signs of stopping. Each year on the anniversary of his death, the National People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement holds vigils, protests and sells TyRon’s dead man T-shirt.

Here is one shirt’s unmistakable message: “If Ya Gonna Be Down Be All The Way Down!” In death, TyRon has become a hero. In life, he _ like thousands of others _ was just another unknown, troubled black male.

In many parts of the nation, moreover, black teens are prearranging their own funerals. Pity a culture that finds individual affirmation in death rather than in life.