How Shall We Memorialize?

Kadir Nelson creates famed New Yorker image of George Floyd titled Say Their Names, from Twitter

The symmetry of the 1st anniversary of George Floyd’s murder and Memorial Day surfaces two uncomfortable questions. For what have beloved family, friends, and fellow citizens died in America’s wars – what is the character of the nation they sacrificed for, who are we as framed by aspiration?  What does George Floyd’s murder say about the Black experience and what does that, in turn, say about who we are, not by aspiration or national rhetoric, but by particular earthy experience, who are we in light of reality? Further, what is the relationship between aspiration and reality?  

One year later, consider a powerful Sightings piece by Richard Rosengarten, published just after George Floyd’s murder. Rosengarten, University of Chicago Professor of Religion and Literature, juxtaposes two pieces of art, both of which channel the kind of evocatively suggestive social commentary prose falls short of. From the mid-17th Century, Thomas Hobbes ‘frontispiece’ image for his famous inaugural track in social contract theory, Leviathan. From the young 21st Century, painter Nelson Kadir’s June 22, 2020, New Yorker cover, Say Their Names, a memorialization – in the truest sense of the word – of George Floyd.  

Rosengarten’s reflection is characteristically incisive. Hobbes, he reminds us, was painstakingly committed to the frontispiece that would accompany his written opus, commissioning it from a notable artisan of the time, Abraham Bosse. Among his insights is the idea that “Hobbes’s frontispiece represents an idealized sovereignty,” while “Nelson’s drawing represents one distressing and ongoing effect of actualized sovereignty.”

Reflecting one year later, the juxtaposition of Nelson and Hobbes can be deepened. Hobbes’s text is about what we ought to aspire to be, and the socio-political (and ecclesiastical in his case) arrangement that would best foster that aspiration. In his view, the members of the body politic relinquish their sovereignty to the all-powerful leviathan, the only way out of an alternative state of nature that Hobbes famously calls “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.” Leviathan, and its frontispiece, is an answer to a version of the first question: who we should be as framed by aspiration.

Once a nation’s self-identity is constituted through articulated values and ideals, sentiment within sees the nation worthy of the ultimate sacrifice. That sacrifice is justified in the language of ‘what they died for,’ in American terms freedom, liberty, democracy. Hobbes was not one for freedom, liberty, and democracy, but he begins a lineage in the history of ideas that comes to include democratic understandings of the social contract, like those of Rousseau and Locke. Memorial Day is a cornerstone of our civic religion that ascribes moral excellence to the act of sacrificing one’s life for the American democratic ideal.  

Notably, Leviathan’s frontispiece features anonymous figures, their backs turned away from the viewer as they face the leviathan that they themselves constitute. It is not about who they are individually –they are indistinguishable – the central concern is what they relinquish collectively in entering the social contract, gaining the security that Hobbes believes is only possible through an almighty sovereign.

Leaving aside whether this imagined ideal of the political order is moral or not, the simple point here is that it is a clear statement of an ideal and thus focused on the first question: who should we be? 

Nelson, in contrast, is answering the earthily human second question, who are we in light of reality. Human, ‘of the earth’ and therefore bodied. Specifically, an answer in light of the experiences of Black Americans and the history of racially fueled killings of Black bodies. Floyd’s gaze – to my eye – is ambiguous. But while the bodies of Hobbes’s leviathan are anonymous, not so the majority of those comprising Floyd’s body: they will not fall to anonymity but are memorialized by – where possible – naming. Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Botham Jean, Sandra Bland, Yvette Smith, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, Trayvon Martin, Alton Sterling, David McAtee, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Philando Castille, Stephon Clark, Marin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Emmett Till, Rodney King, the Selma Marchers, Rosa Parks, the victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre, Gordon, and finally “The Unnamed” enslaved Black people who remain nameless in unmarked graves.  

And here’s what strikes me the most in Nelson’s painting. So many of their faces are alive, beaming with potential, and expressing something that looks a lot like hope.  Laquan McDonald is painted with a smile on his face in his graduation cap and gown.  Aiyana Stanley-Jones’s braids frame the smirk on her childlike face. Botham Jean, Eric Garner, and Yvette Smith beam.  

Hopeless remembrance too easily leads to embittered resentment. Memorialization does more than remember the past, it sets our eyes on a better future.  Through it, we “re-member” what is possible. We constitute and realize what may be. That is the suggestion in faces Nelson paints into George Floyd.  To move toward that possibility, hope through memorial is essential.  

Finally, in a stroke of brilliance, Nelson laces periwinkle throughout his painting. Periwinkle is the wildflower that was planted at the gravesites holding the remains of nameless enslaved Black people. It has led scholars to those otherwise unmarked sites, in collaboration with organizations like the Periwinkle Initiative. In Say Their Names the periwinkle infuses the color into an achromatic canvas; hopeful color at that. While he faces the question of who we are in light of reality, Nelson doggedly keeps hope within memorialization. Periwinkle is an image to keep in mind this weekend as we lay flowers at the graves of the fallen. Perhaps there is a bridge between who we are in aspiration and who we are in reality.  

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.