Say Their Names: Kadir Nelson

The week of June 22, 2020, sees one of the most brilliant images in the storied history of New Yorker covers, Kadir Nelson’s “Say Their Names.” Within an elongated body of the murdered George Floyd, we behold a host of other people of color, many murdered or martyred, across four centuries of American history. The New Yorker website contains a fascinating digital scrolling tour of the cover, which in its upper reaches contains the faces of recent victims of police violence, and descends in time through the victims and heroes of the Civil Rights movement, to images of the enslaved at its base.

Floyd, to paraphrase Walt Whitman in Song of Myself, is large, he contains multitudes,. His body serves as a vast graveyard for so many who passed before him, at white hands both known and unknown. Blue periwinkle flowers, which often signaled the graves of enslaved and free persons buried without markers, dot this symbolic final resting place. Are we perhaps also meant to think of the flashing blue lights that haunt the nation’s streets and highways, sometimes the last thing seen by those pulled over for driving while black?

On the throat of the vast figure, suffocated by the policeman’s knee for the infamous eight minutes and forty six seconds, we see the faces of some of the most recent victims of the nation’s undeclared war against its own citizens of color: Ahmed Arbery, Tony McDade, and Trayvon Martin. Throughout this shadowy landscape we see those who, in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ terms, were denied fundamental authority over their own bodies, even as they struggled for life and dignity, unto the last breath.

Appropriately, George Floyd’s head blocks out two letters of the magazine title, “Y” and “O.” Although he was killed in Minneapolis, his death left a jagged wound in the nation’s preeminent city, in the entire country, and around the world, a reminder of how many lives across the generations have been blotted out before their time. His death has occasioned acts of planned and spontaneous mourning and remembrance near and far, including in the form of murals and street art, and perhaps most famously, the painting in yellow of the words “Black Lives Matter,” on 16th street, directly facing Lafayette Park, from which peaceful protesters were forcefully removed with pepper spray and truncheons for the Presidential photo op. In Concord, Massachusetts, each morning my wife Ellen and I walk on a paved path through the woods, on which two dozen local high school students have conscientiously chalked the names of hundreds of black and brown victims of police shootings, and their efforts are of course echoed now around the planet. There is a fascinating convergence of grieving, for those lost in recent months to Covid-19, a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted communities of color, and the outrage over the violent deaths, one after another after another, of black people.

So far as I can tell, the only white people glimpsed in the work are at its precise center, perhaps over the spot where George Floyd’s heart might be, and roughly where he wore a tattoo. We see the shadowy figures of white police offers beating a prone Rodney King in front of stopped vehicle. The nocturnal scene of terror is lighted, appropriately, by the adjacent burning cross of the Klan.

The work’s title, “Say their names,” occasions a fascinating and necessary history lesson, plumbing the dark depths of American history. Nearly all of us need some help from the website in recalling who precisely we see, although some of the names, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Emmett Till, and Rosa Parks, are familiar to most. The lashed and knotted back of the formerly enslaved man in the bottom right, is recognizablet to many, although his name, “Gordon,” is less widely known. Significantly, the left base of the image is filled with over twenty enslaved people in shackles, whose names are beyond recovery. We can try to honor them in silence, but we cannot follow the injunction to “say their names.: They are forever interred in unmarked graves on the plantation, signaled only by the periwinkles.

Misericordia Polyptych [Madonna della Misericordia]. Piero della Francesca. 1460-62

The shape of Floyd’s body has many echoes. Perhaps we are meant to think of the dark outlines used in police target practice, or the chalk outlines drawn around victims’ bodies on the pavement. We may sense flowing from Floyd’s head the torrents of a great river, perhaps an allusion to Langston Hughes’ “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” There may an allusion to the classic motif in Christian iconography of the Misericordia, in which Mary’s outstretched arms and mantle encompass and protect the multitude of the faithful.

Frontispiece of Leviathan by Abraham Bosse,

Jean Comaroff notes parallels with Abraham Bosse’s frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan,” an etching in which the torso of a giant sovereign is composed of the faces of hundreds of persons, a technique that may have borrowed from Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s tendency to depict portraits of persons composed out of other elements.)

One particularly poignant association may be the famous depictions of the dark shape of the hold of a slave vessel, crammed with captive human bodies, summoning up the estimated 35,000 journeys that brought enslaved people from Africa to the New World across the centuries. Most of those depicted within Nelson’s great body were born long after slavery, but the long shadow of America’s founding original sin endures. In a sense the entire nation remains trapped within the slave hold, charged with the unfinished work of making amends and now rising, one hopes, to the work of social repair.

Many of the depicted faces, it should be noted, are smiling, a reminder of the vital spark of life snuffed out by police violence or white mob action. Floyd’s face is impassive, perhaps even serene, although his darkened eyes do look out at us, unflinchingly, reminding of us of the great work that lies before us, as we seek to honor his memory, and that of the many thousands gone. These are the faces and the names whom we carry with us, as we together, march forward, once more, in the long-thwarted quest to build the Beloved Community here on Earth.

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