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Patt Morrison asks: Black Obituary Project founder Ja'han Jones on the psychological toll of police violence

Patt Morrison asks: Black Obituary Project founder Ja'han Jones on the psychological toll of police violence
Black Obituary Project founder Ja'han Jones. (Courtesy Ja'han Jones)

Newspapers write a number of obituaries in advance, to keep on file, because when heads of state or movie stars or Nobel laureates die, there's no way to assemble what amounts to a substantive instant biography on a tight deadline. Ja'han Jones knows all of that. He's a recent graduate of Arizona State University's journalism school, and in the year or so he's just spent working in New York as a page at NBC, at the Today show, he's given some thought to obituaries – not those of the rich and renowned, but of black people whose names would likely make news only if they were killed in encounters with police. So he began the Black Obituary Project, a Web platform for African Americans to post their own obituaries as they'd imagine they might read, if they did indeed die in an encounter with police. And Jones began the project by writing his own.

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What is the Black Obituary Project?

The Black Obituary Project is a collaborative project undertaken by a gamut of black people and it's intended to convey the reality of state-sanctioned violence and also its residual impacts.

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What we did was collect prewritten obituaries from black people with the intent being to show that police violence is indiscriminate; it affects all of us, young, old, all in between. Secondly it allows black people an opportunity to tell their own stories.

So often, when African Americans are killed by the police, their photos are posted about, but their stories are not shared in a way that is humanizing. and so this gives black people a chance to share their stories, share their shortcomings in many cases, and tell their tales on their own terms.

You studied journalism at Arizona State University, so writing obituaries isn't something that's unfamiliar to you.

About a year ago, I was toying with the idea of writing my own obituary and submitting it as a freelance piece to, honestly, anyone who would take it. That piece never came into fruition.

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This year, in the wake of the Alton Sterling and Philando Castile shootings, I was driven to do it again, but I saw so many of my peers had similar sentiments. And I thought it would be even more powerful to loop them in on a project like this.  So I fairly instantly began contacting people and seeing how open they would be to the idea of writing their own obituaries for the purposes of this project. I was really surprised, and you know we've enlisted thus far about 140, 150 people and we're looking to grow.

When you thought about writing your own, you were not, I hope, writing it in anticipation of anything but sending a big message to say, This is who I am and this is what my life would be summed up as if this happened to me.

One of the things I also wanted to stress is that for black people to conceive of our own deaths actually isn't too formidable of a task. Because there is the so-called talk that black parents have with their children about ways for their children to avoid fatal conflicts with the police.

They tell their children to stand up straight and keep their hands on the steering wheel and make sure their pants are pulled up and to treat the officer respectfully.

So there's a checklist that black children are very familiar with. And they're only familiar with that checklist because they know the repercussions of not adhering to it strictly could be their death. And so I was able to conceive of my own death fairly easily.

That's not to say it wasn't emotionally taxing, but the actual task of putting pen to paper was easy.  And I think that's a sentiment shared by a number of other people in this project.

You grew up in Arizona. Did your parents give you that talk, too? And have you had any encounters with police that reinforced it for you?

Absolutely. My parents did give me that talk. I have family members who have been harassed by police. Personally, I can only speak of one specific incident that was kind of off-putting, and that was that I was just running through the park once, and a police officer drove his car onto the sidewalk of the park, so he's driving onto the grass.

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Mind you, I'm the only one running throughout this park and he asked me who I am and what I'm doing there, and he let me go on my way. But I would be lying if it didn't admit to the fact that as I was speaking to that man, all the things my parents told me about my potential interaction with police, and what I should do — those things were going through my mind.

There's this sort of terror that black people experience in many cases when speaking with police, because they know that their lives could be ended at any moment for any reason.

Of the people who have submitted their obituaries to you, what have they told you about why they're doing it?

I think there's been this sense of kinship among us. We realize that these are trying times and these are important times, so I'd say the prevailing rationale that I've heard from people who have contributed is they just want to contribute their voice to a movement at this time.

I'd say one of the things I was truly surprised about was how forthright people were in writing their own obituaries, and that was my request, of course. What I was surprised about in reading these obituaries was that so many people were incredibly honest about their stories, and the things that they had yet to accomplish and their failures and their personal shortcomings.

So quite possibly the most enlightening aspect of this project was reading people's realities with blemishes included.

What kind of blemishes did they talk about?

A number of people spoke about their timidity, about how they lived lives that were safe to such an extent that they may have shorted themselves tremendous opportunities and shorted themselves incredible experiences.

And a number of people considered themselves cowards, and that's a direct quote. I advise people to read these obituaries in full because you really get the gamut of emotions. You see a number of people who are speaking triumphantly about all they've accomplished, and then you have other people who are speaking regretfully about all they weren't able to accomplish.

Has any of them said to you that writing his or her obituary changed their lives — at least changed their thinking about themselves and their lives?

A number of people, when they sent their obituary back to me, were thankful for the opportunity. Those people who contributed, this is their first time of doing so on a formal platform. I sent them a template. They had to adhere to that template, of course, but they also infused their own emotion, their own passion and things of that sort in their own stories.

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Part of your template is the "lede," which everybody uses. So we read: "Ja'han Elliot Jones, 24, was unarmed when shot and killed in a conflict with local police officers … Alisha Patrice Miles, 24, was unarmed when shot and killed in conflict with local police officers." And at the end we see, "Alisha Miles was once a woman upon this earth and yet she is no longer. Dominic Joseph was once a man upon this earth and yet he is no longer." You went to journalism school, and you know that's not the way necessarily a news obituary is going to be written. But this is about something else than just delivering the news.

I consider this a convergence of my journalism interest and my artistic interest. I don't believe the two are necessary mutually exclusive.  I've always believed that the finest journalists among us take our realities, yes, and speak to them, but they also contextualize them.

But with regard to the uniform intro and outro, I felt as though the "lede" was as devoid of opinion as possible. When they sent their obituaries back, a number of them had created different narratives. They said so-and-so was unarmed when shot and killed at an anti-violence rally. They were building these stories — and I completely understand that, because we have this urge to create this sort of perfect victim.

And I was trying to urge all the contributors not to do that. Because there are no perfect victims, and just because you're not a perfect human being doesn't mean that your life is should be valued less.

We have, I think, about 150 submissions. That number is almost reflective of the number of black people killed in this country thus far this year. If all of these people were to pass in a day, it would be considered at national tragedy. But the fact that that number, whatever it may be — 197, and it may have grown since then — has been spread out over the course of a year, we don't really treat it as such. So the vastness of it will allow it to be more impactful.

Looking at some of the photos on the webpage, there are young people with cap and gown from graduation, young people with kids, young people with parents and grandparents. Tell me a little about the range of these 150 people who have submitted their obituaries.

They come from so many different backgrounds, they come from a number of different political affiliations. They range in ages. You discussed the photos, and that was something I kind of wrestled with.

Initially I was just going to have everyone send in just a gray selfie sort of photo. The best way to describe that is just the typical photo you find when black people are killed by police. It's usually this photo that seems to have been taken with a phone from 2008 and it's not typically high-resolution.

This comes from my journalistic experience: sometimes when we're writing stories about people who were slain we don't have access to their personal Facebook accounts. So we can only use the photos that are made available to use, and those typically aren't the photos that present people in their best light. I told them to send me the photo they would like to serve as their lasting image.

Did the people who wrote their own obituaries show them to their families?

It's very possible some of them shared with their families what they'd written. I didn't share with my family that I was even working on this project until the day I debuted the project. My parents were excited about the project; they thought it was beautiful, but of course they're forced to reconcile their appreciation for this project with the prospect that their son may be taken at any moment.

The grievances I've heard from people who have been opposed to the project is that black people are supposedly speaking their own deaths into existence. I don't believe black people dying at the hands of the police have died because of an inability to speak positivity into their lives.

We're interested in creating our own narratives. We are unflinching in our criticisms of the nation as it is today. And we also realize that there are greater machinations at work that pose impediments to black lives. So this project is just one of many that's serving as an indictment of sorts.

Who are those critics?

It hasn't been exclusively white people, which may be some people's initial assumption.  I concede that this project is discomforting but it's necessarily discomforting, as far as I'm concerned.  We're trying to be jarring. We're trying to show people that it's very easy to see these stories on television, to see that someone has died, and to continue with your life if you don't know the person who has died.

And abstaining from conversation about race and racism and disproportionate policing is contributing to the very society that so often leads to the deaths of African Americans.

Everyone finds a different way to express her voice or his voice, and some people turn out at rallies for Black Lives Matter. This seems to be the journalist in you saying, This is my contribution.

Absolutely. And this is just the beginning. It's been humbling to be able to encircle so many of my peers and co-workers in a project like this. This is going to exist forever. I'm never going to stop accepting these obituaries.

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