We shared Kobe Bryant with the world in life
Memorials offer us the chance to reassemble
As the ceremony was about to begin, the celebrants part of an estimated 20,000, filed into the Staples Center wearing Kobe Bryant jerseys or Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes.
The lights dimmed. “While this is a memorial event, the word celebration is very much a part of its purpose,” said the announcer.
The names of those who perished were recounted and Beyoncé sang “XO,” then “Halo,” a requiem. Footage of a young Bryant played overhead to the sounds of music and applause. Then Bryant’s 2017 charge to his daughters when his Lakers jerseys were raised to the rafters. “Those times when you don’t feel like working – you’re too tired, you don’t want to push yourself – but you do it anyway. That is actually the dream.”
Memorials are a reclamation. Unlike the displays of raw anguish among the hundreds of thousands who gathered outside the arena in the days following the helicopter crash that killed Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, and seven other souls, memorials offer us the chance to reassemble.
The chance to go to pieces and then put ourselves back together with whatever is left, as James Baldwin put it.
They grant us space to find community and shared meaning in death. But on the shared meaning of Bryant’s life, no such space exists.
Bryant’s legacy as a generational basketball talent, an ambassador of black excellence and intellect worldwide, a #GirlDad and advocate for women and who once was charged with sexual assault, resists collective understanding. That difficulty both arrives at and is responsive to a cultural moment that finds previously marginalized voices and victims newly centered in wrenching national conversations. A superstar athlete’s helicopter crashed into a hillside and exposed fault lines black people are unready to deal with, especially in front of company.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said a couple of weeks ago that the memorial would be a fulsome tribute to a man whose influence transcended his sport.
“I think one message that I would say is this is not just about a man who was a basketball player, this is about a father, this is about a leader, this is about a filmmaker, this is about an artist, this is about somebody who was so much more than just how he was on the court.”
For his fans worldwide, that is the message that feels the most profound. His life of accomplishment and purpose inspired them, his Mamba mentality focus and work ethic felt aspirational. His active and engaged fatherhood to four girls was a balm.
This is what they know about him. This is what they want to remember and memorialize.
After charges against Bryant in the 2003 rape allegation were dropped, and a lawsuit against him was settled, Bryant issued the woman involved an apology, acknowledging that she had not seen the incident as consensual.
That, too, is what some remember, and it’s triggering for many victims of sexual assault, and others who saw Bryant’s wealth and celebrity erase her story. And, by extension, their own.
This is the cultural moment in which Bryant died, and the lesson of his life is contested. He is a black superstar whose legacy straddles nearly all of our cultural crosscurrents, and we do not yet have the language and framing to discuss it, let alone the answers. For black people, it is a moment where the tensions are racial and generational and gendered. There is a tear in our social contract that has always depended on mutuality, and presenting a united face.
Black celebrity deaths have long been siloed. They exist inside a canon. Even in our grief over the untimely deaths of Whitney Houston, Prince and Nipsey Hussle – who were beloved, and we mourn them still – we understood the tragic containers their lives and deaths fit into. If their backstories were at all problematic, it wasn’t anything that required black people to fight each other, or the country, over their deeper meaning.
Michael Jackson’s 2009 death from a fentanyl overdose was viscerally felt. But it did not precipitate a wholesale black reckoning either. The reasons are complex and intertwined.
Jackson was accused of sexually abusing children multiple times, settled multiple lawsuits, stood trial and was acquitted in 2005. His death came when black and brown, LGBGTQIA, abuse survivors, and a whole range of othered voices weren’t as amplified, or able to exert social, legal or economic pressure on transgressors.
When Jackson was protesting his innocence, he did what Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas had done before him at the Senate hearing where Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment. The same thing Bill Cosby and R. Kelly would later do when multiple women came forth with allegations of sexual abuse – claim that a racist nation was out to destroy him.
Though these opportunistic claims are often met with wide swaths of black skepticism and common sense, the invocation of a racist double standard, one that white people don’t hold themselves to, can be a powerful counterargument.
The allegations of assault and abuse against black men run into the history of lynching, creating profound bad faith in the criminal justice system. Standards of behavior and criminality benefit white men at the expense of black men to the point that they cannot simply be accepted at face value by black people. They are often reflexively doubted. There are some who dispute the allegations against Bryant.
This is not to say there haven’t always been tensions between black women and black men around violence and abuse, or that calls for change haven’t grown progressively louder over the years.
The 1977 statement of black feminists in the Combahee River Collective read in part: “We struggle together with Black men against racism, while we also struggle with Black men about sexism.”
Two decades later, in her her groundbreaking book When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as a Hip-Hop Feminist, author and scholar Joan Morgan made it plain. “White Girls don’t call their men ‘brothers’ and that made their struggle enviably simpler than mine … I needed a feminism that would allow us to continue loving ourselves and the brothers who hurt us without letting race loyalty buy us early tombstones.”
By 2007, it was another black woman, Bronx, New York, activist Tarana Burke, who started the #MeToo movement to give voice to victims of sexual assault. But it did not gain national recognition until white women attached themselves to the movement, and that new prominence has animated much of the debate around Bryant’s legacy.
Inside the dimmed arena, the women who took to the podium were bathed in light. Bryant’s wife, Vanessa, called him a man who honored his wife, and affirmed his daughters, urging them to push forward when things get tough. Diana Taurasi, “The White Mamba,” who plays for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, said Bryant had made it OK for her to be as fierce as she could as a competitor. Sabrina Ionescu, who plays for the University of Oregon, talked about his constant support and exhortation “to wake up, grind, and get better.” From Beyoncé to Christina Aguilera to Alicia Keys, women’s support and tributes were among the most powerful of the morning.
Some people call Bryant’s history disqualifying. Others call it a mistake he put behind him that now merits little attention or no mention at all.
It is these contradictory beliefs that this moment calls into relief. Navigating those contradictions includes a reckoning with fame, abuse, and atonement. It is a moment that needs to grapple with sexism, and violence against women, and it does not feel like a conversation we can have with white people without first having it among ourselves.
We shared Kobe with the world in life, but black people are always returned unto us in death. We become their protectors, keepers of the flame, and the final word telegraphing the meaning of their lives and legacy to the future.
Even if we’re struggling with what, precisely, we want to say.