Last weekend, dozens of Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau’s family and friends gathered to lay the 19-year-old student and activist to rest. They crowned her coffin with pink carnations and wore face masks as they leaned into each other’s arms, sharing memories of their beloved, pausing to wipe away tears.
If you read the Tallahassee Democrat’s account of her memorial, you will see part of Salau’s life absent in all the accounts of her death. How she was described as faithful—carrying with her a Bible passage from Isaiah 54:17: “No weapon formed against me shall prosper for my righteousness is of the Lord.” How she loved modeling and fashion, balancing cosmetology courses with classes at Tallahassee Community College.
We know she was an active organizer and activist—participating in Black Lives Matter protests in a town where the police force had shot and killed three men over the course of just two months. She dreamed of channeling that passion into a criminal justice career, her loved ones said—one of her goals was to study law at Florida A&M.
There is a flattening that happens when a Black person dies a violent death—whether it’s at the hands of white supremacist vigilantes or police, whether its gender or racial violence. You become your death—the circumstances of it, the outrage of it, the inaction that follows it. This has been especially true of Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old EMT killed in her Louisville apartment by police in a botched—and now, illegal—no-knock warrant drug raid. In the last few weeks, as millions around the country continue to call for greater attention and accountability for the violence Black women face, activists and writers on social media have warned against making the 26-year-old EMT a meme. “It’s been [x number of] days since Breonna Taylor was killed” was becoming an easy shorthand for a societal failures.
The same is also true of Salau. It is hard to get past the brutal details of her last days on this earth: a sexual assault that led her to seek refuge with a man she did not know, who then assaulted and killed her. The circumstances of her death are both specifically horrific and representative: for myself, and everyone we know, Toyin reminds us of someone we love. She reminds us of someone who was failed. She reminds us of someone who fought fiercely and deserves far, far better.
But in each of these stories, I remind myself that the person I am writing about belongs to a specific family, a specific neighborhood, a specific friend or loved one. That their beauty is preserved in these details: the communities they were rooted in, equally capable of blessing and wounding them; their particular gifts and vulnerabilities and hangups. We know, from what her loved ones chose to share, that Toyin loved beauty, and that she loved justice. So when I think of Toyin Salau, I try to think of the things that might have delighted her: the way a luminescent powder can make your cheekbones as sharp and bright as a blade; how the right winged eyeliner could open up your whole face; how she—once the youngest member of her church choir—might have sung to herself while getting ready, while trying to soothe others, while trying to soothe herself.
To write about these Black Lives Matter protests, and to write about structural violence, is to write about death, because it’s so frequently the impetus of the former and the effect of the latter. And it’s to write about death almost interchangeably—the names and hashtags piling on top of each other, a paragraph that functions as a mass grave. It’s a numbing and demoralizing practice if you are not careful.
So when I read about the lived experiences of these Black women and the specific ways their families, chosen and otherwise, have mourned them—the songs their loved ones sang for them, the flowers they arranged, the details they shared with a local reporter—I want to linger there. To remember them as they were, to stay a bit longer with the places and people they touched, absent the trauma of their deaths. It is sacred ground.