The Trayvon Generation Conveys the Timelessness of Black Art

To call The Trayvon Generation a book of essays would be an incomplete description. An extension of Elizabeth Alexander’s New Yorker essay of the same name, published at the height of mass protests in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, The Trayvon Generation is a multimedia project. Comprising nine essays across three sections, it explores the power of Black art as a catalyst for reflection and social change. 

Through a thoughtful assemblage of visual art, personal and historical anecdotes, and excerpts of poetry and speech, the book is a cautiously hopeful letter to a young adult audience she names “the Trayvon generation.”

Apart from the first essay, the titles of Alexander’s essays are pulled from quotes. The title of the second essay, “here lies,” is taken from the lines of Lucille Clifton’s 1989 poem “at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina,” a poem found within the essay. “here lies” discusses the pervasiveness of racism in American collective memory, as reinforced by public monuments such as the carvings of confederate leaders found at Stone Mountain Park in Georgia, the largest Confederate monument in the world. 

The strength of The Trayvon Generation lies in the connections Alexander makes between seemingly disparate works of art spanning different generations. Alongside her discussion of Clifton’s poem, Alexander includes an image of a 2015 installation by visual artist Kara Walker, “The Jubilant Martyrs of Obsolescence and Ruin,” which depicts the brutality of slavery and the Civil War. By presenting visual art created by a Black woman in tandem with written work by a Black woman who passed before the exhibition of said visual art, Alexander conveys a broader narrative about the timelessness of Black art.  

Alexander’s writing resembles the work of authors like James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time who uses autobiographical prose to deliver sermon-like essays on the Black condition. Alexander employs images in a style similar to that of Claudia Rankine in Citizen: An American Lyric, using photographs and paintings to lay bare what words cannot. While Alexander does not construct her essays as pointedly as Rankine, opting for Baldwin’s first-person rather than Rankine’s piercing “you,” her essays still capture the sentiments of a generation of Black Americans seeking to harness creative power as a subversive tool to disrupt white supremacy.

More than just a meditation, Alexander’s book reads as an anthology of artwork that speaks to the legacy of Black creativity and imagination. A personal highlight of the book was an essay in Part III titled, “we dress our ideas in clothes to make the abstract visible.” Opposite the title page of the essay is a striking image by Chandra McCormick titled “Daddy’O, The Oldest Inmate in Angola State Penitentiary.” The essay details McCormick’s project of photographing incarcerated people within the penitentiary as a practice of reinforcing dignity within a prison system that constantly undermines it. 

Later in the essay, Alexander discusses artist jackie sumell’s project in reconstructing the dream home of Herman Wallace, who spent forty-one years in solitary confinement while incarcerated at Angola. sumell’s culminating product, named “The House That Herman Built,” was a radical practice of imagination. Alexander writes, “Before I saw Angola prison myself, and walked where the thousands and thousands of human beings whose lives have been affected by it lived, these artists showed me so. More of us can know because the art sees for us and carries traces of the lives of the human beings who are remembered by their loved ones and whom we cannot turn away from.” 

Essays like “we dress our ideas in clothes to make the abstract visible” stand out not for their particularly thought-provoking analysis, but because of the way they synergize the art and writing. Given Alexander’s background as a poet and scholar of African American literature, such inclusions were well-selected and poignant. 

While Alexander’s connections between the creative expression of different generations is effective, her connection to the experiences of younger generations is less compelling. Alexander’s perspective as a mother is clear—especially within the titular essay—and generally self-aware, compassionate, and earnest. But the book doesn’t fully recognize the realities “the Trayvon generation” that she identifies faces. 

Alexander writes, “But I worry about this generation of young black people and depression,” which she attributes to the “specter of race-based violence and death…compounded with the constant display of inequity.” She recognizes the societal conditions which have given rise to poor mental health amongst Black Gen-Zers and “The Trayvon Generation” but falls short in identifying the circumstances, such as the aversion some Black elders have toward addressing topics ranging from mental health to police abolition, and lack of institutional access for Black youth, that enable it to persist. 

For this reason, though the content suggests that the essay is about and for young people, the titular essay reads more as a personal account of being a mother of young Black kids, written for other parents of young Black people.

Small flaws aside, the merits of Alexander’s essays and grounded optimism toward the power of Black joy and creative expression are sure to resonate with audiences of all ages. “Art and history are the indelibles. They outlive flesh. They offer us a compass or a lantern with which to move through the wilderness and allow us to imagine something different and better,”  Alexander writes.  

The Trayvon Generation is a quick read with prose that is elegant and direct. At its core, it contains intelligent insight into the importance of creating radical Black art and memorializing Black history. Readers who appreciate Alexander’s well-researched and concise writing, and her eclectic taste in Black visual art, will enjoy this book. 

Whether you are familiar with the writing of Gwendolyn Brooks or less familiar with Amanda Williams’ “Color(ed) Theory” project featuring brightly painted houses in Englewood, Alexander’s book will meet the reader where they are at, introducing or re-introducing interesting cultural touchstones and Black art interspersed with eloquently written and spot-on commentary.

Elizabeth Alexander, The Trayvon Generation. $22. Grand Central Publishing, 2022. 144 pages.

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Sabrina Ticer-Wurr is a writer and college student from the South Side of Chicago. This is her first time writing for the Weekly.

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