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To Be Young, Gifted & Black, when Mattering is not enough

Updated: Feb 12

Written by Justice Jamal Jones

Photography: Heather Hooton

Creative Direction: Justice Jamal Jones

In quarantine I have been sitting a lot- taking up space peacefully in my family's home in Omaha, Nebraska. Quiet I have been for 6 months, a vast change from my previous life as NYU student gone young film director. My black home is so quiet, yet the world outside is so loud. I hear “Black Lives Matter” on the TV, and see it on signs when I drive, or even see a white girl on Instagram posts about her new found care for black bodies.

I begin to dissociate. Do I matter? Am I real? Do I exist?

On May 30, 2020 22- year old James Scurlock was fatally shot by Jacob Gardner, a white bar owner with a checkered history with law-enforcement and notorious reputation for being anti -queer and racist. The shooting took place during the George Floyd protest in the Old Market area of Omaha, Nebraska, where Gardner's bars are located. Back at the scene, the protest would turn violent when Gardner drew his gun and fire two shots. In an attempt to restrain Gardner, Scurlock jumped on his back to prevent any more shots. Then Gardner fired one more shot, hitting Scurlock in the neck. James Scurlock died at the Nebraska Medical Center shortly after.

Jake Gardner would not be charged, as Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine declined, saying Gardner acted in “self-defense.”

How do we heal from this?

In an attempt to heal, I explore my spirituality. I Expand my knowledge of the Orishas and honor my ancestors with candles, dance, and song, alone in my room. I can’t see them but I know they exist. Scientifically, “Matter” is just a physical substance, anything that occupies space and has mass. It’s not just that Black Lives Matter, black people do things. We love, we hold each other, we are boundless, we are external, to matter is not enough.

If this is true, then how do we honor those who have lost their lives in the name of mattering? How could I honor James’s life? My life? Our lives? How could we live?

I took inspiration from the great Nina Simone. After the death of beloved playwright Lorraine Hansberry in 1965, Simone wrote the beloved song“To Be Young Gifted and Black” to honor Hansberry, her life and work.

Thus, “To be Young, Gifted, and Black, when mattering is not enough” was created. A photo-interview series celebrating young black life.

In the age of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, where violence against black people can no longer be tolerated. America must be reminded of gifts that young black people possess. It should not take killing after killing, and unjust ruling after another for young black peoples gifts to be visual in the public eye, after it is too late for us to be congratulated.

11 young black people from James’s hometown of Omaha, Nebraska came together to celebrate themselves and each other.

This is what happened:

Odochi Akwani (far left, front)

Who Are You?

My name is Odochi Akwani. I always seem to be after some sort of inner peace. I am one who feels too strongly but it reminds me I’m alive. 

What Does It Mean to Young, Gifted, and Black? 

To be young, gifted, and black means my expression is not limited. I am who I am. It means joy it means sorrow. 

Who are you not? 

I am not to be diminished because my thinking is not hallow. 

Who do You hope to be? 

I hope to be more patient with myself and the world. 

What is your gift?

(Pictured: Sarah Zeleski and Monty Edwards )

Sarah Zeleski 

Who are You? 

I am an artist and I am human. I am a stubborn individual at times,but overall I am simply determined to accomplish all that I want to accomplish in this life- in my ever-fluctuating agenda. 

What does I mean to be Young, Gifted, and Black? 

Being young gifted and black is simultaneously the greatest blessing and the heaviest weight to bear. Still, I would not trade my truth, my personhood, and all that I am for anything. I am proud to be black. 

Who are you not? 

I am not one for the stagnant states; I believe in pursuing constant growth, nonlinear as it may be. 

Who do you hope to be? 

I hope to be a good and kind person. I hope to be someone who truly knows love of self and one that can help others to know the same. 

What is your gift? 

My gift is art. Most of my works are drawings, but I create everything from the perspective of an artist! This is the beauty I seek out in the world. 

Monty Edwards 

Who are you? 

I am everything they said I was not, everything they said I couldn't do. 

What Does it mean to be Young, Gifted, and Black? 

It means to be beautiful, and to be powerful in a world my ancestors built for me. There is nothing that is unattainable. 

Who are you not? 

I am not going to stop until I achieve all that I dream of. 

Who do you hope to be? 

I hope to be a warrior, tenacious in all that I do. 

Kami Buchanan (center left)

Who Are You? 

I am a strong leader. I am independent and motivated to reach my full potential. 

What does it mean to be Young, Gifted, and Black? 

Being Young, Gifted, and Black gives you leverage, but with it you must push your talents with hard work and drive. 

Who are you not? 

I’m a boss, but I’m not bossy. 

Who do you hope to be? 

I hope to be the best version of myself. I hope to be content with myself and my accomplishments in the future. 

Arie Marche (right)

I am Arie. I am a young black woman chasing and living my dreams.

What Does it mean to be Young, Gifted, and Black? 

To be Young, Gifted, and Black is something that is in all of us, but only some have the ability to show. It means everything, unity, stability, more successful young black people. 

Who are you Not? 

I am not someone I don’t want to be, because I can only be me. 

Who do you hope to be? 

Joel Auther 

Who are you? 

 I am Joel Auther. I am a proud black man. I am originally from South Africa. I moved to the United States four years ago. 

What does it mean to be Young, Gifted, and Black? 

To be young, gifted, and black is to have a super power. Not many have what you have and many will hate you for that. 

What are you not? 

I am not mean, I promise. 

Who do you hope to be?  

I want to give back to the

community and those that supported me. 

What is your gift? 

My gift is that I am incredibly creative, 

Jace Anderson (upper center right)

Who are you? 

I am Jace Anderson. A strong confident, and gifted black man. 

What does it mean to be Young, Gifted, and Black? 

Being Young, Gifted, and Black makes me feel invincible. I feel so behind blessed to have the skills capabilities, and gifts that I have because I feel that I can have an impact on the world. 

Who are you not? 

I am not scared. I am not afraid to be different. I am not afraid to shine. 

Who do you hope to be? 

I hope to inspire the world through my art. My art being music, film, modeling, and connecting with people. 

What is your gift? 

My gift is my ability to connect with others. I share moments with people, I am a gentle soul. I love to love and to relate. It’s all about understanding. 

Jefferson Pereira ( Upper Center Left)

Who are you?

I am Jefferson Pereira, and I am strong, and I am relevant, I am powerful, I am driven, and I have endured many things to mold me into the person I am today.

What does to be Young, Gifted, and Black?

To be young gifted and black is to be timeless, exquisitely beautiful, and rich in culture. I know that I will always prevail.

Who are you not?

I am not weak, I am not worthless, and I am not afraid.

Who do you hope to be?

I hope to be an inspiration to others

What is your gift?

To motivate others to see their own greatness, worth, and potential. Also the level of compassion, and empathy I posses.

Duwaune Hayes (Right)

Who are you?

I am Duwaune Hayes. I am every grain of sand. I am a healer tasked with caring for our future.

What Does it Mean to be Young, Gifted, and Black?

To be young, gifted, and black is to have a great purpose in Life since, for generations, it was said that you do not exist or shall not exist. We are vital, we recognize our abilities, we are the descendants of the sun.

Who are you not?

I am not powerless. We have no need to wait for Power, we have had it since our very first hour of birth.

Who do you hope to be?

I hope to be Kind and Gentle to myself.

What is your gift?

My gift is To be at this Time, knowing the things I know.

Justice Jamal Jones

Who are you?

I am Justice.

What does it mean to be Young, Gifted, and Black?

It is intrinsic. Blackness is a gift. Being young just gives us all more time to learn and grow.

Who are you not?

I am not to be underestimated. For my age or my blackness. Both are treasures.

Who do you hope to be?

I hope to be half of the humans my Mother and Father are. I hope to make them and my ancestors proud.

What is your gift?

My gift is my sensitivity. It has caused much pain my life, but it has led me to many beautiful moments.

Since my quarantine home in Nebraska, much has changed. Trump is no longer President, there is a promise for a vaccination, and I am back at NYU for my final semester of college.

With all of that said, I am still concerned. I fear that the liberal illusion of the new administration will pacify movements like Black Lives Matter, Trans Lives Matter, Black Trans Lives Matter, diluting these powerful movements into fads only realized in hashtags.

I often feel that time is cracking around me. I am constantly escaping my identity to find myself right where I started, being celebrated for my identity rather than my art and myself as an individual. But there is a duality. I love all of my identities, but the constant white capitalistic obsession with young black excellence terrifies me. This obsession with blackness creates an alignment to whiteness, something that I don’t want. Seen in headlines like “Young Black Creator,” “Young Black Artist,” "Young Black Filmmaker” and the list goes on and on, as if black people haven't always been doing these incredible things. But what about who is behind these adjectives and pronouns?

I believe true representation happens when we can start to understand individuals as complicated conglomerations of pronouns that create a one single dynamic proper noun. The Human. Due to 100s of years of white people fucking things up, it's not always that simple. But thankfully there is theory, and ways to “disidentify.”

Jose Estaban Munoz’s “Disidentifications” looks at how marginalized communities negotiate mainstream culture- not by aligning themselves with or against discriminative spaces, but transforming space as their own, creating a “fiction of identity” that is outside of the realms of mainstream culture. In short, black people don't need whiteness, we can create spaces that live completely outside of it. We don’t need validation from intrinsically racist institutions that want to change their tune to fit the trend of inclusivity. We don't even need to be great or gifted to be celebrated. We are and always have been enough.

To be Young, Gifted and Black is to live beyond. To be the future. To be unapologetically yourself, in your full complexity, in your failure, and simplicity.

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