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Memento Mori

A Letter from Harlem by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts.

When I came home from abroad, death was in style. I don’t remember when I first noticed it; I remember only the moment when a few sightings could no longer be understood as a coincidence. I looked upon familiar scenes and noticed things that had previously escaped me, or perhaps were not there.

I had come up from the basement reading room of the library, which was kept at a sickly chill. I went out into the sun to warm myself. It was there that I saw them: first one, then another, then another young man walking by, unassuming, oblivious to the fact that they were entering into a catalogue in my mind. They were wearing shirts with skulls on them, either identical or of similar design; this was the uniform of the season, and it was one of the first things I noticed when I came back home.

It was the end of summer. Most days on the avenue I’d see kids wearing those black shirts in the white heat. Some shirts were more austere, with the great skull against its black background covering the entire chest; others showed the bones of the torso as if in an X-ray, laying bare the cavity that protects the heart. There were lighter, more decorative versions that looked like they were lifted from the tattoos of a fat-biker bicep: a skull festooned with roses, a skull beneath a crown, a skull held aloft on wings. These were often accompanied by slogans: Do or Die, the skulls said; or Affliction; and Sinful. More Guns than Roses; and Death before Honour. Love Kills Slowly; and The Working Man is a S-U-C-K-A.

All of this can be interpreted as a new rock ‘n roll pose with a twist of the street; an overambitious trend piece in the New York Times might reach and call it the rise of Afro-Goth. It was not, exactly, cause for what the newspapers call “alarm”. Still, I mentioned to a friend what I was seeing, and how it seemed like the young men in our neighbourhood were parading around wearing symbols of a not-so-subliminal collective death wish. I asked another friend, if it used to mean something when people wore medallions with Africa around their necks, how could it not mean anything when people wore death across their chests? I told him how I could not cross the path of a young man in a skull T-shirt without remembering the meaning of the death’s head in the Renaissance, where the skull is the sign of Memento Mori: remember thy death: remember that you will die. Or how, in the time of the plague, the Danse Macabre (the image of the skeleton dancing with figures rich and old, young and poor) was used to show exactly how equally vulnerable everyone was to their common scourge: anyone could be laid low by it. The skull was the symbol that we should all, eventually, come to an end.

My friend suggested I was committing the sin of overinterpretation and that it was not my meaning to make, and that I was reading into things a bit too heavily. There was nothing to note. This point of view was confirmed, when, one night, walking down Adam Clayton Powell Blvd with a different friend, we came to a group of boys aged no more than 13. They were playing ball in the dark; they bounced their ball against the pavement and then against the wall. I saw that two of them were wearing the skulls, and because I was by then tiring of my own interpretations, I stopped in the midst of them.

“Excuse me,” I said, and the ball bounced a few more times. “Can you tell me about your shirt?” They didn’t act as if it was a strange question. One of the group answered me with some enthusiasm: “That’s just that new style, that’s just that new fashion they came up with.”

I wanted to ask him who THEY were, but another boy who was wearing an oversized red shirt with a skull marked out in  diamante studs, piped up. He pointed to his own shirt, telling me that you can get them personalised with your own name on them. His skull was monogrammed with the initial: A.

My friend and I walked away. I was reading into things a bit too heavily. Things are not what they seem, I’d been saying. Things are not anything more than they seem, the boys seemed to reply.

When I was away certain news stories reached me like telegrams in the night: Come Quickly. Or, All is Lost. Reading news from home I found that things were not as they seem. An armed man killed by cops on the night before his wedding could turn out, in fact, to be an unarmed man. A marauding gang rounded up in Brooklyn is not a gang after all, but a group of teenagers on the way to a wake for a dead friend. A length of rope hung from a tree in a schoolyard is just a length of rope. Things are not what they seem.

Therefore when I came home, I should not have been surprised to find death heads walking down Lenox and 7th and 125th; death heads on the subway adorning a girl’s shoes, her shoelaces, her belt, her belt buckle, her baseball cap; his and hers skulls on the T-shirts of a canoodling couple in front of Harlem Hospital; all these things, I should not have been surprised to find, were not about death. They were, as my pre-teen informant said, “just that new style … just that fashion they came out with”.

The answer was not satisfying. It did not satisfy me. And against my friend’s warnings, I continued to think about it. Through the fall, as I was getting to know my streets again, more telegrams arrived, this time from a few streets away: Come Quickly. A man was shot in the back in the Rangel Houses. All is Lost. A man was shot in East Harlem by an off-duty cop. These real deaths, as opposed to the skull shirts, also posed their problems of interpretation. The first news item about a late September shooting was headlined: ‘Cops Kill Armed Man’. The brief paragraphs on this death mentioned that eyewitnesses said the man, who was shot in the back, did not have a gun; and though these versions did not reconcile, no words were devoted to their interpretation.

Later, when the man’s name was revealed and the newspapers described how a 9mm pistol was discovered beside his corpse, even as eyewitnesses continued to claim they had seen no gun, it was also revealed how a man shot in the back while in flight could still provide cause for a shooting in self-defence: according to the two plain-clothes cops in pursuit, the suspect was “spinning”, that is, he’d been running from them with his gun at “waist-level” and then he turned toward them and then turned away from them and while “spinning” in this fashion received the fatal wound to the back.

The newspapers also announced that the man “had a troubled history with the law and an official review of the shooting by the NYPD concluded that its officers acted properly” and that “the shooting was within departmental guidelines”. So because the man had, “a checkered past”, it would not be reading into it too heavily to suggest his death occurred almost as if by natural causes.

I had either stopped paying attention to the skull shirts or they were passing out of fashion by the time I paused with my neighbours to chat one morning and they greeted me with ominous tones. There was a helicopter circling and they told me the police were looking for someone. This was a thing I remembered from childhood, helicopters circling low as I wondered whether the police would find the person hiding in the bayou behind our house or crouching in the rose bush outside my window. I told my neighbours it had not occurred to me that the same practice was carried out in New York, and maybe it was because of this naive expression that they started warning me about the bad things that were going on: telling me that there were a lot of bad people out there, that I must be watchful, and how just last week there had been a body on our corner at Lenox Avenue and 133rd, and how it had stayed there most of the day.

And when they told me this, I didn’t believe them, it did not seem like a thing to be believed. On some level I did not believe it completely until I read a brief news item identifying the suspect and the victim. And even the victim’s name did not bring to mind any picture of a real thing that had happened on my block, so I realised that that must have been a day when I did not go out at all, because it did not seem possible to have gone out and passed a dead body on the corner in plain sight and not have taken note of it.

My neighbours’ warnings stayed with me: like a DANGER sign affixed to a poisonous substance, giving off its deadly consequence with the sign of the skull and bones. Such signs are attached to the fences that mark off the abandoned, overgrown lots where we live and rat poison has been tossed in. It is a universally recognised symbol, not open to interpretation.

I have always liked allegory, the practice of hiding meaning out in plain sight. In painting, the symbols were without dispute, so that if you were an art enthusiast in the Low Countries in the 17th century, you would know immediately the meaning of a candle that has just been snuffed out, its tendril of smoke rising; or an overturned glass; or a piece of rotting fruit; or a rose set to quiver and drop all its petals. You would know immediately the meaning of a skull. The meaning of these things would scarcely require interpretation.

Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas. All is without meaning. We will all be laid low. Some lower and with greater frequency than the rest.



Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts lives between New York, New Orleans and Paris. She is writing a trilogy on African-Americans and utopia; her first book, Harlem is Nowhere, is available from local independent booksellers. This letter was originally printed in the first edition of Chronic Books, as part of Chimurenga Vol. 16: The Chimurenga Chronic.

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