Imagine thinking that out of the 197 black people who’ve been killed by police this year, one of them could have been you. This thought process, unfortunately, is all too familiar for many black Americans.
For Harlem-based writer Ja’han Jones, this was a recurring notion ever since his parents gave him the “necessary” and “traumatic” talk about the realities of black people being targeted by the police.
After the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in July, Jones was reminded, yet again, that he could face a similar demise. This time, he took an unsettling next step: He wrote his own obituary.
“Ja’han Elliot Jones, 24, was unarmed when shot and killed in conflict with local police officers,” his obituary reads. “His familiarity with the Black canon steered him into a potent state of unapologetic Blackness ― one in which the James Baldwins and Young Jeezy’s; the bell hookses and the Queen Bey’s; the Frantz Fanons and the Futures all occupied hollowed, cherished beautiful space in Jones’ identity.”
He wanted to submit it to a publication as a freelance piece, but he ditched the idea when he realized so many of his peers felt similarly about the continued devaluing of black lives as he did. So he decided to create the Black Obituary Project.
This project, which launched on Thursday, is a platform for black people to write their own notices of death while they are still around to control their own narratives. Instead of relying on biased news reports that tend to vilify victims of police brutality, the Black Obituary Project gives black people an opportunity to tell the world about their strengths, imperfections and values.
“So often, we are killed and our photos are posted about but our stories are not,” Jones told The Huffington Post. “This grants black folks agency we’re often denied in death. We are telling our stories ― speaking of our triumphs and tragedies ― before anyone else attempts to do so for us.”
One of the goals, he said, is to show the wide range of people who fall victim to anti-black violence.
“We are all harmed ― young, old, righteous, ratchet, and all between,” he said. Jones notes that the 80 obituaries that have been written so far show that “black folks are uniquely burdened by the weight of mortality.”
The Black Obituary Project is open for submissions and will continue accepting them indefinitely, Jones said.
No matter how you look at it, writing about your own death while you’re still alive is depressing to say the least. Contributing writer Jarrett Payne, who, like so many black people, had become emotionally drained from black death, told HuffPost that he felt uncomfortable while he wrote his obituary. But it forced him to acknowledge that he’s not ready to die, especially as a result of state violence.
“We are placing the reality of police violence before the eyes of those who know us best and forcing them to grapple with the prospect of police taking us from this Earth. And this is not fatalistic -- this is realistic.” Ja'han Jones
It’s not easy to swallow ― intentionally so, Jones said. But he wants to be clear that the contributors to this project aren’t saying that this injustice is their fate.
“We are placing the reality of police violence before the eyes of those who know us best and forcing them to grapple with the prospect of police taking us from this Earth,” he said. “This is not fatalistic ― this is realistic.”
Though it may be discomforting, Jones said he wants this to be a therapeutic space for black people. And even in its heaviness and darkness, Jones said, the Black Obituary Project shows the resilience of black people.
“I pursued this project because I hoped to publicize that we, black people, have reconciled the darkness of our circumstances with the brightness of our aspiration,” he said. “The darkness isn’t our doing. We live in it, but we didn’t create it. So highlighting that darkness, in my opinion, indicts our nation in a way I feel is necessary.”