When Bernie Mac died, I wrote, “Not so deep down, we all know that safety is an illusion, that only character melds us together. That’s why most of us do everything we can (healthy and unhealthy) to ward off that real feeling of standing alone so close to the edge of the world.”
In 2020, we have lost so many familial heroes to complications of COVID-19—while also losing four distinct Black men who made sure we knew, and know, that we are never alone in our fear, though the edge of the world seems higher and falling feels more inevitable than ever.
Congressman John Lewis lived a life of direct action, modeling how formative grassroots organizing can be in the making of an American politician and global political force. He died as he lived, fighting reactionary, right wing policy with political symbolism and vigor.
Chadwick Boseman assessed the world Rep. Lewis navigated and dedicated his life to activating narratives and characters we’d yet to imagine. The actor and producer reminded us that while the personal is political, the personal and the political often rely on imaginative precision driven by a love of expansive notions of Blackness.
Kobe Bryant played with perfection in the worlds created and cultivated by men such as Lewis and Boseman. His complicated legacy is defined by his base desire simply to be the greatest worker ever at his job. Bryant’s job also happened to be an art, a game, that let him understand that when you’re too close to the edge, you can jump, and really soar, to the other side.
George Floyd watched Bryant soar, saw Boseman perform and felt Lewis’s political transformation. Though he was castigated by conservative media, his is a life familiar to Black Americans. He was trying to change that life, and simply to get home, on the day he was killed in front of the world. In mustering the strength to call for his mama while dying, he beckoned us back from the edge of the world—and walked us into the spiritual world of elders gone too soon.
All four of these men tried, failed and got up, until the day they couldn’t. They defined heroism and redefined radical responsibility for generations to come.
KIESE LAYMON is a Black southern writer from Jackson, Mississippi. Laymon’s bestselling memoir, Heavy: An American Memoir, won the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, the 2018 Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose and the Austen Riggs Erikson Prize for Excellence in Mental Health Media. It was named one of the 50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years by The New York Times.