I will never forget the first—and, unfortunately, what would be the only—time I had the pleasure of meeting Devon Tyrone Wade, the Columbia University Ph.D. student killed late Sunday night.
He was charming, had a smile that lit the entire room and demanded attention in the most subtle ways. Through his social media posts, it was clear to me that Wade was charismatic, unassuming and bright and navigated the world in a very self-assured way. What was also evident was his genuine love for people and for his community. Put simply, Wade was a star who was wise beyond his years.
Unfortunately, he also became a victim of gun violence and was taken from us this past Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
According to KPRC Click2Houston, Wade and 29-year-old Mario Jerrell Williams reportedly got into a heated argument. A witness reported seeing Williams leave the bedroom of Wade’s home in Atascocita, Texas, apparently upset. The witness told investigators that Williams wanted to talk to Wade, but Wade had asked him repeatedly to leave, which he finally did, according to the police report.
Williams returned, and moments later, the witness heard two gunshots and ran out, only to see Wade’s twin brother, Stephen, asking someone to call 911, KPRC reports. Williams later turned himself in to the police and is currently being held at Harris County Jail in Texas on $100,000 bond.
Soon after his death, many media outlets began framing this killing as a violent lover’s quarrel—a crime of passion, perhaps. I will never forget sitting in criminal law and procedure classes in 2009, as a first-year law student, thinking about the nonsense of certain “crimes of passion.”
Some crimes of passion are deeply connected to possession, ownership, jealousy and ideas of romanticism. None of that is truly connected to passion, and it certainly isn’t connected to love—not the kind any of us should find to be true, anyway. Society owes it to all people to do a better job of discussing the ways that intimate-partner violence (pdf) affects all communities, but especially ones that are often forgotten, like black queer and transgender populations.
Still, Wade’s close friends make clear that what’s most important is how we—as writers, academics and folks at the margins—frame how he lived, especially when mainstream media may find it more valuable to sensationalize how he died.
Yes, Wade’s life reminds us of the importance of calling into question love, romance and desire in black queerdom. He reminds us of the critical dialogue we should have on how toxic masculinity and patriarchy become increasingly dangerous when compounded with feelings of unrequited love and attraction. His life and death call to attention the ways in which violence cannot be viewed through a narrow prism when we’re considering the intersections of blackness and queerness.
But that is not the extent of his legacy. Wade worked fervently so that those without a “bright future”—individuals who often fall between the cracks of mass incarceration, poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia—would not be forgotten.
That memory should not be erased.
“Devon Wade was a force, an angel amongst men. He was a gentle spirit, who generated electricity in all spaces he dwelled,” said Jeffrey McCune of Washington University in St. Louis, a mentor and friend to Wade. “His life’s work, examining the impact of incarcerated parents on children, was to be a shape-shifter to the sociology of education. He is sorely missed.”
Wade understood firsthand the direct impact that mass incarceration had on young people and families. As he was growing up, both his mother and father were in prison, so he was raised by his grandparents. But from all accounts, instead of blaming his parents, he realized their personal struggles and he decided to tackle oppressive systems—such as the prison-industrial complex—and how they affect black communities.
While a student at M.B. Smiley High School, Wade enrolled in No More Victims, a program for young people whose parents are incarcerated. Wade eventually became an honors graduate at Louisiana State University, a Harry S. Truman scholar and then a doctoral student at Columbia in New York City, studying sociology. He talked about these experiences often, how they collectively shaped his work on the collateral consequences of incarceration and how he had to unpack his own trauma.
In the YouTube clip “Who Is: Devon Tyrone Wade,” Wade noted, “I had not yet necessarily had that conversation with my parents about what their being in prison meant for me. And even though I had in most cases excelled … there were a whole host of things that impacted me in ways I kept inside.”
Thankfully, not only was Wade able to find his own voice, but he was also able to empower others to find theirs.
Wade’s work was focused on not just what happens when we lock up individuals but also what happens to their families. What happens to those communities? What happens to returning citizens once they are released from prison? Wade wanted to create a society that allowed for the most marginalized to survive and thrive by providing resources and also by understanding how trauma is punished for already at-risk youths.
“What we will miss from [Wade] is that he speaks assuredly but not abrasively so. He is inclusive, welcoming, warm and wanted his work to extend beyond nonacademics,” close friend and colleague Adam Smith told The Root. “He wanted to make sure his work was not just contributing to the research but to the people that needed it the most.”
Wade was a budding scholar, a critical thinker and a person known by everyone to show compassion for marginalized communities. He was taken from us by way of gun violence, despite doing what society told us was “right.” Although we can’t bring Wade back, we must continue passing the torch by uplifting often-forgotten people, the alleged downtrodden, those whom society further pushes into the margins.
What happened to Wade shouldn’t have happened. He should still be with us and those who loved him most in the world. It is now our responsibility to continue pushing and thinking of collateral consequences of the prison-industrial complex and policing of neighborhoods, and make sure that his life’s work was not in vain.