When Elijah McClain died two years ago, I wasn’t yet in the habit of articulating myself— publicly, with any kind of wider resonance. But two years on, his murder still brings out all of the same feelings and ideas that were clanging about within me at the time.
Elijah McClain, slain by Colorado police on the 30th August 2019, was my age at the time of his death, but in all honesty, that doesn’t mean anything in particular. But I still find that who he was meant something to me, mostly because I couldn’t use what I’d heard about him to define him, not when I really heard and really looked. Upon closer inspection, I actually found the word ‘eccentric’ or ‘quirky’ (good god) do not encapsulate a person, and leave way too much room for imagination.
His job as a massage therapist, his hobby as a violinist— one dedicated to performing for abandoned animals, his soft spoken, kind way, his wild smile and unpredictable poses for photographs didn’t actually welcome me into Elijah— the person in the way it may have through being presumptuous.
‘Weird’ didn’t seem to fit either, it wasn’t sticking to my idea of him, and when it briefly did, it didn’t offer me any kind of meaning. The relativity of ‘weird’ means it can account for too many things. All of it just blurred my understanding, because in actuality, none of those attributes can be put toward any sort of conclusion— for me. But I realised that’s how it should be. If any conclusion could be drawn at all, it was that Elijah sat in an uncategorised space. All that made me think of, is that it seemed by large that his short life had allowed him to be a law unto himself. He afforded himself that right, to be a lot of things at once while also being nothing at all regardless of who thought and said what.
That is where the resonance kicked in for me. He and I seemed to have moved through life in a similar way. It just happened naturally— I could blame my experiences and environments for making me feel as though I’m someone people may struggle to pin point. I could analyse it all to figure out what gives me the authority to sit in an uncategorised space. But the only thing I can say about it that matters is it’s a true privilege to feel free to operate OPENLY in the way people who look like me are rarely granted; in a busy (messy) way where my interests and feelings and sense of expression are erratic and sort of uncensored. I can’t really help it. Nothing has permanently stifled me from being many versions of me, and if it did in the past the damage was short term. Nothing ever held me down for long. And in hindsight, I obviously had to fight and fight for that, and a handful of things that felt bad before they felt good gave me the agency. And Elijah seemed to be the same, and that is my only judgement of him that feels the most worth it.
Like all black experiences, his was a danger in its own right, and it ultimately killed him. All of us are ‘dangerous’ regardless of whether we know or feel it. Evidence suggests that Elijah considered himself different and naivety would’ve pushed him to measure safety by how easily you can be forced into one of a handful of boxes. And his death did force me to reckon with whether I’ve ever felt safe or felt like I had a reason to (no and no). But it also allowed me to unlearn the nonsense that had been peddled to me all my life. We’re taught the categories, the endlessly negative, fictional black categories before we’ve even made an imprint on the world as individuals. In my 23rd year you can’t take the truth from me, that all black people are Elijah in their inability to be defined, but often without the courage and with the fear of being their full selves unreservedly and loudly.
Any of the labels that could’ve been given to Elijah would’ve been the product of some kind of cold, surface level analysis of him based on what he enjoyed to do, and the buzzwords that may have cropped up if blessed with the opportunity of speaking to him all of once. And it all would be forced onto him. And it would’ve been for the purpose of understanding what it is they’re looking at when they look at Elijah, to aid their digestion, to reason with how he may make them feel things they can’t really explain. It would’ve been the same clinical, yet shallow analysis all black people undergo without our permission. And when a lot of you is hidden, and when you can’t possibly wear it all on your sleeve, whichever box is thrown over you very quickly.
The fact is, whether you choose to make a home out of whichever box, leap out of the box, or whether there has never been a box anyone was successful in making for you, we’re all dangerous, all equally. I know now though that this world isn’t going to give you that safety to live aloud, or even the right to be multifaceted in silence. You have to make it and take what is yours—your right to be a human being. If we were made to be rigid and governed by outside definitions of who we may appear to be, we would be flat, cut out bits of paper, outlines of women and men. Don’t wait for anything to be who you are, to make a song and dance out of who you are, don’t reserve your full self for when you’re alone. Be and live who you are, and make it your day to day.
A fully alive, fully outstretched black person taking up as much space as they need is the most frightening black person, so be scary. RIP Elijah McClain, I miss and yearned to know you.