Say their Names: Intersectional Identities in Times of Celebration and Mourning
Text by Dalia Elhassan
Illustration by Codi Fant
Philando Castile. Charleena Lyles. Nabra Hassanen.
Violence at its onset reveals itself as a kind of rupture: a breach in the allegedly harmonious interaction between our bodies and the world. Rupture is a sudden break in movement, a sudden misstep unaccounted for. It is what we feel when violent tragedies suddenly knock the breath out of us and force us into awareness. As we come up to a weekend where a number of communities are gearing up to mark momentous celebrations—this year Gay Pride and Eid ul’ Fitr fall on the same Sunday—off the back of a week where multiple deaths sent shockwaves across communities of color, specifically Black and Muslim communities, it doesn’t feel like there is much to celebrate. For Black Muslims in particular, it has been especially jarring. After a period of deep mourning, there is a little to celebrate in the face of justice gone unserved. There is, however, something to honor.
Following the acquittal of Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez, the cop who fatally shot Philando Castile, was the murder of three-month pregnant mother Charleena Lyles. She was shot and killed in her Seattle home and, like Castile, in the presence of children. That very same weekend, seventeen year-old Black Muslim girl Nabra Hassanen was abducted and brutally killed in Fairfax, Virginia.
The unifying factor between these three individuals is the intersection of their racial, gender, and religious constitutions in the face of violence. It is their overlapping identities as they lived on their bodies—as a Black man, Black woman, Black Muslim girl—that were easily identifiable and thus, hypervisible. It is the body that remains most visible. It is the body that is called into question.
The first time I heard about Philando Castile: I was in Sudan and the Facebook livestream recorded by his girlfriend and fellow passenger, Diamond Reynolds, appeared on my feed. Even with the several thousand miles of distance that was between myself and this country, it still wasn’t far enough to not feel the violent rupture of racism and anti-Blackness that emanated from the US. The following year, I felt the same rupture as I watched Yanez be acquitted of all charges. The rupture is palpable as Valerie Castile addresses the same violent institutions that unjustly rule against justice for her son: “My son loved this city, and this city killed my son.” It deepens when I learn of Charleena, who was also fatally shot and killed by her own city—represented by the police, the same officers she called on for help. My heart aches to know she was a mother, and expecting, making it that not one but potentially two lives were lost to senseless racist violence.
Yet, it was with Nabra’s death that it became clear to me that we feel some violences more deeply when our own identities are implicated. Nabra Hassanen was a young, beautiful Black Muslim girl of Nubian ancestry, whose spirit and smile resembled my own at her age, who was the same age as my sister, and whose identity as a young Black Muslim girl police accounts allege had nothing to do with her murder.
The night Nabra was reported missing, I had settled into my local masjid after one of the midnight trip my friends and I often take to the nearby Dunkin’Donuts. As we read the articles and made duaa (supplication) for her in hopes that she would be found, none of us spoke out loud the fear we felt. It was the next day when reports that her body had been identified in a local pond that the fear we collectively shared in as Black and Brown Muslim teens and women had been actualized. Regardless of whether or not her death was being explored as a hate crime, it signified something deeper to those of us whose identities intersected in the same ways hers did. Suddenly, we were made aware of our vulnerability, mortality, and the terrifying ways that this country failed us in its promise of safety.
The night her death was confirmed, my sister and I returned home at 4 a.m. Neither of us has spoken a word. Instead of speaking, she turned to her closet and pulled out the same baby pink cropped sweatshirt Nabra had worn in a photo of her published in an article. We stare at the sweater and let our grief silently thicken the air. To be Black and Muslim (mutually or exclusively) in this country are identifications whose roots are deep-seated in the same oppressive plot of land. Though that soil is rich and fertile, a wealth of experience and enduring history, it does not come without its hardships. It does not come without its losses.
For days, Nabra has not left me. The narrative of her death represents something beyond that of an isolated incident of “road rage”. For many of us that occupy identities that intersect and overlap, we fight for the narrative that asks us to critically engage with our bodies and how they move through the world. Was Nabra killed in a momentary flight of rage or was she killed as a result of internalizing state-sponsored hate-filled rhetoric of violence against marginalized identities? To what purpose does the narrative that her or Charleena’s or Philando’s identities were a non-factor in their murders serve? Is an attempt to safely categorize any of their lost lives as isolated incidents a cheap attempt to offer us the peace of mind that racism, xenophobia, and anti-Blackness aren’t as big of issues as we think they are?
In pushing for a narrative that recognizes each of their intersecting identities as factors that allow multiple systems of discrimination and oppression to overlap, we push for an attempt at critically examining the ways violence manifests itself in the world. It is in hopes that we will no longer have to bury members of our communities and families as a result of violence that has gone unchecked.
As we head into this weekend, may we hold the systems that oppress us accountable, may we choose to love intentionally, may we make the choice to remember and honor the ones who’ve been taken from us and, most necessarily, may we remain diligent in encouraging and preserving hope. It may just be all we’ve got.