Today would have been your 25th birthday and, as I write this letter, I am listening to Aretha Franklin sing “Never Grow Old.”
If I was predisposed to a belief in an eternal paradise, I would imagine that Queen Aretha hummed this hymn when she spotted you at her welcoming ceremony. Perhaps she even handed you this letter. But because I am not given to such fantasies, I am listening to the Queen’s captured voice as she croons:
I have heard of a land on the far away strand,
’Tis a beautiful home of the soul;
Built by Jesus on high, where we never shall die,
’Tis a land where we never grow old.
A 25th birthday might not be as significant a milestone as one’s 18th or 21st. Sadly, for your mother, Sybrina Fulton, for you and for all of us, you only had the opportunity to celebrate 17 birthdays. The rest were stolen from you. From Sybrina. From us.
I’ve always wondered why we don’t celebrate birthdays by giving presents to the mother. Isn’t a birthday actually an anniversary for something she did? After all, she is the one who actually gifted the world with a life. All the birthday celebrant did is live. Why are they celebrated?
Now I know why.
Because, for a black boy in America, living is an accomplishment. Our simple existence is a reason to celebrate. It would be easy to remember you as a martyr and make a ghost out of your memory. Instead, today we celebrate your accomplishments. We honor the fact that you achieved 17 years of existence. That your purloined life continues to have meaning. You are not simply a symbol of the scourge of police brutality—you were alive. You are.
There is a phenomenon that most black boys and girls spend their lives trying to avoid. I call it “involuntary suicide”—the act of unintentionally and unwillingly giving one’s life. It happened when Philando Castile reached for his firearm license; when Sandra Bland decided to smoke a cigarette; when Botham Jean sat watching TV in his own living room; when Atatiana Jefferson peered out of her window; when Eric Garner breathed. It hovers over all of us, waiting in the shadows.
You were a living, breathing, promise-filled thing who turned toward your oppressor and looked the monster in the eyes. In an instant, with nothing but a pocketful of Skittles and a heart filled with the resolve we hope is inside us all, you decided that you would not go quietly into the good night. When this unjust land of milk and honey mustered up all the evil it could offer and came for you, you offered it a fight.
And you won.
Make no mistake, you won.
So we celebrate.
Maybe America is a paradise.
Even those of us who managed to somehow elude America’s unrelenting, devouring death-chase understand that our success at survival is not of our own doing. We know that our continued existence is as arbitrary as the unconsenting suicides that we luckily escaped.
And that is why we celebrate your birthday. That’s why we adorned ourselves in hoodies. That’s why we keep fighting. Because you are us. We are you.
Trayvon, as long as black people exist, you will never die.
And black people will always exist.
But we too, know a land where we never grow old.