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A still image from T by Keisha Rae Witherspoon shows a Black person with their arms spread wide as if flying, wearing a homemade costume of wings.

Issue 002 Spring 2021 In Focus

For Trayvon For Tupac And Their Mothers

by Keisha Rae Witherspoon

T (2019). Film still courtesy of filmmaker Keisha Rae Witherspoon.

We wrapped the T shoot the day before Hurricane Irma slammed into the Florida coast in the fall of 2017. By that time, it had already razed the Bahamas, parts of Cuba, and other Caribbean islands. It was disastrous—one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded at that time.

T, a film that largely centers Black grief and ultimately transcendence, was also very much inspired by the environmental crises we face—the alignment between these two spheres, both traceable to the casual whims of white supremacy, greed, and violence. In revisiting the script, something I haven’t done in years, I found myself once again in acute mourning and vindication, an experience that ended in tears. A testament to the power of writing. Not only as a means to an end of creative output, but also as a personal exercise. For oneself. I had the opportunity to sit across from 2017 me, to face myself and reflect. To extend a bit of gratitude to myself for not slumping under the weight of the temptation to give up. 

There were some basic questions I found myself faced with: what is it to be Black in 21st century Miami? The country at large? Why does grief take form for us, down here, through the rest-in-peace T-shirt? Is it simply remembrance or is it plumage? Is it a cape or perhaps a skin—a shroud of our loved ones’ DNA that might travel with us, warm and protect us? What is it to carry the broad preservation of imploding American society in one hand and in the other, the microcosmic preservation of the self? One’s own heart. Which do we release when we’re tired? When there’s dirt in our eye?

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

What is it to be Black in 21st century Miami? The country at large?

Still from the film "T" shows a young black man with dreadlocks standing in front of a twinkling backdrop. He wears a shirt from a memorial of a loved one with a large photo that says "In Loving Memory of Jarbis Andrews."
T (2019). Film still courtesy of filmmaker Keisha Rae Witherspoon.
Still from the film "T" is an image of.a fishing net filled with a collection of small skulls and shells.
T (2019). Film still courtesy of filmmaker Keisha Rae Witherspoon.

Maya Angelou’s words come to mind as an undercurrent to this process. I recall this agony in great detail. While writing T was often a joy—imagine combing the internet for Black celebrations and rituals, discovering the likes of artist Nick Cave’s stunning Soundsuits, and Senegalese Kumpo—it was also grueling. The script required a specific confrontation with and immersion into my own grief. It required me to attempt to walk the path of a mother who had lost a child—an impossible task. The path of the sibling, the cousin, and every Black person in this country, living under siege of photos of dead Black people adorned in the flashing red, white, and blue graphics of evening news, sandwiched between commercials, later cycling back to us in glass frames and on T-shirts. I tasked myself with an infuriating personal standoff with America. For repossession of our narratives, our destinations, and our pictures.

Documentary-style film served as a means to present characters who are embodiments of true-to-life shared experiences in the Black community and a means of sowing earthly victory and cosmic fantasy into the banality of real-world corruption and evil. After all, what is art if it isn’t a spell? To seduce the mind with new ideas and possibilities we might download into our cells. Then, manifest. Why not remind the forgotten, hardened, and impressionable of their humanity and their divinity?

Still from the film "T" shows a "soundsuit," an intricate collection of lights arranged to take the shape of a human body. In this image, the shape of a head can be seen in the dozens of orange lights.
T (2019). Film still courtesy of filmmaker Keisha Rae Witherspoon.

The writing process was an existential cyclone. A churning. One that mirrored my experiences as a child of the tropics, observing the increasing number and intensity of hurricanes—how they devastate a region mostly inhabited by Black, Brown, Indigenous folk. But all the while directing my eyes toward our transcendent spirit. T is a kaleidoscope of all the beauty in the entire cosmos that I see in Black folks. The beauty of humanity at our best, and in Nature’s conviction to regenerate. There will be more hurricanes, blizzards. Bigger, stronger, more destructive, more dangerous. Likewise, there will be more confrontations and upheaval to dismantle the horrific legacy and propagation of colonialism that ravages and maims. Through it all, our movements, our art, our spells indeed reign. Because we are a spiritual, magical, impossible people.

I hope T lives on as songs do. That it even remotely looks and feels the way Jason Moran’s piano solo “Toni Morrison said Black is a Rainbow (Shadow)” sounds, that it grazes the hem of Pharoah Sanders’s “Love Is Everywhere.” I hope T continues to bring some tenderness. I hope it is as evocative as it is soft. Because T is a love letter. A love letter for Trayvon. For Pac. And Sandra. And now, for Tony McDade. And Breonna. Oluwatoyin. George. The innumerable unnamed.

For their mothers and fathers and the millions who now know and love them and rep them forever on T-shirts.

For you.

All my love,

The homie, Keisha Rae