Fresh to Death: African Americans and RIP T-Shirts
My 28-year-old nephew, Willie Lee “Chill” Oglesby, Jr., was murdered on November 8, 2017. One of the first things that his mother and my sister, Aleta (affectionately called “Snooky”), did was to commission Novel T’s to create 44 official RIP (Rest in Peace) T-shirts. As ritualized mourning wear, all of Willie’s immediate and extended kin, as well as his close friends, donned the RIP T-shirt at his wake. The T-shirts unified us in our grief while signaling to the public that we were in mourning. The T-shirts also provided solidarity, creating room for healing by memorializing his life – his place within our family and the larger community. Further still, RIP T-shirts allow room for healing by metaphorically filling the void of the loved one’s absence, serving as second skin to keep him close, and even allowing mourners to fill out the imprint he left, with our own image. As in the opening picture of Candice, who uses the T-shirt as what I term a “walking memorial,” RIP T-shirts have multiple purposes to mourners, but nevertheless, it is a ritual rooted in celebrating life.
RIP T-shirts celebrate the life of the decedent, which is why they are commonly worn at the repast, the meal following the funeral. The repast is the first step to normalcy for the bereaved family. Appetite, a function of the living, is usually the first thing “to go” when grieving, which is why family and close friends bring food to the bereaved. Therefore, breaking bread in such a communal setting at the conclusion of all last rites is a signal to “get on with life.” And it is during this ritualized food gathering, while wearing the RIP T-shirt, that joyful memories of the decedent are shared. For African Americans, the RIP T-shirt has seamlessly become part of established African American funeral traditions, like the repast. Mourners dressed in RIP T-shirts congregate, plates of food in hand, eating, engaged in conversation while simultaneously comforting each other through the grief. In RIP T-shirts, the bereaved fellowship and share positive memories of the deceased, starting with the one depicted on the shirt.
RIP T-shirts are also worn to celebrate the postmortem birthday, when partygoers celebrate the day as if the decedent were living. For Willie’s first postmortem birthday, my sister planned a series of events that included a new RIP T-shirt, a family bowling hour, and a joyous celebration at a nightclub that Willie frequented. In addition, it is common for RIP T-shirts to be worn in combination with life events like the RIP T-shirts worn at my cousin’s 50th birthday party. There were partygoers wearing RIP T-shirts dedicated to Willie and even one wearing a RIP T-shirt dedicated to a loved one who died several years back.
Soon after the RIP T-shirt is worn during death rituals, it becomes part of the wardrobe of the living not only during celebrations but also anywhere the wearer deems fit. In this way, RIP T-shirts double as ritual wear and connect to what scholars of death material culture term “ordinary/everyday wear,” clothing owned by the deceased given significance through death. Ordinary/everyday wear is the material culture left behind that holds memories and allows for one more interaction with the dead. It is important to highlight this when viewing how Candice (in the opening photo) turned her RIP T-shirt into not only ordinary/everyday wear but a walking memorial. The day after Willie’s funeral, Candice donned her RIP T-shirt to church to honor the memory of his life. To all whom she encountered, she confronted them with Willie’s memory, reminding them of his life, memorializing Willie in a very public way. RIP T-shirts as walking memorials are invaluable to mourners who are not always privileged and financially endowed enough to erect traditional public bronze memorial statues or have public namesakes, i.e. buildings or streets, named after them.
As walking memorials, RIP T-shirts serve as an important source for not just telling but also publicizing the story of our kin, challenging the mugshot or dead body image generally carried by news outlets. Through nicknames, angel wings, images of heaven, and pictures that capture the true likeness of the decedent, the RIP T-shirt both memorializes the three-dimensional person while using grief and mourning to resist the racist/racialized and gendered stereotypes. My nephew was nicknamed Chill not because of so-called street affiliations but because his maternal aunt called him “Chill Will” from the time he was an infant. Religious imagery is present on the shirt because these young men and women were raised in the church.1 From Mike Brown and Sandra Bland to Willie Oglesby, Jr., and Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, Black bereaved family members politicize their grief in ways that highlight the white supremacy that caused the death as well as use it as a tool to fight for justice. As a walking memorial, the RIP T-shirt is a reminder of the life cut short by injustice. It is a reminder that we have not forgotten and that we won’t forget.
Black people have a long history of turning death, dying, grief, and mourning into activism. During the institution of slavery, our dead may have only been given open air burials but we created second funerals, which were last rites under the cover of night within the woods and near the slave quarters to properly memorialize all who had died that year.2 Some of the earliest cemeteries, such as Mount Auburn Cemetery in Baltimore were founded to establish burial rights for Blacks and give us humanity in death. This 1807 cemetery that still stands today was created so that people of color (as they termed it in the deed), both free and slave, would have a place to be buried with dignity and respect. It was a place where one could be remembered, a place where kin could visit and fill out family trees unlike slave cemeteries that had no markers and allowed no visiting because it was the private property of the slaveholder. The 20th century saw Black people politicize funerals using death to strike a blow against Jim Crow segregation. Mamie Till insisted on an open casket funeral so that “the world could see what they did to her boy.” Pondexteur Williams’s mother in 1970 fought all the way up to the Supreme Court when Hillcrest Memorial Gardens in Fort Pierce, Florida, denied her 20-year-old Vietnam veteran son burial in their “white cemetery.” In contemporary times, Black Lives Matters activists stage die-ins to protest. The murder of George Floyd spurred protest in all fifty US states and at least thirteen countries for black liberation and against white supremacy. African American deathways reflect our need for freedom and justice from oppression and discrimination.
RIP T-shirts have multiple purposes to mourners that all come back to remembering the life of the deceased. A deep part of this remembering is not forgetting African Americans slain due to street violence. The first RIP T-shirts (circa late 1980s to early 1990s) were created to remember young brothers and sisters lost to gang violence. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Black youth between the ages of 13 and 24 made up a disproportionate amount of urban homicides due to gang affiliation, the amount of death in the community was just unimaginable. Those young people who were losing their friends and family used the spray paint (the very same spray paint they were using to express themselves within the burgeoning graffiti culture in many urban areas at the time) to express their grief and mourning. With fat letters that exuded style and flair, RIP T-shirts were easily adopted as mourning wear in many urban communities where gang violence struck the hardest – Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City. As spray paint (referred to as airbrush when discussing clothing) became a signature style of the new hip-hop culture that was also burgeoning at this time, RIP T-shirts were adopted to express the mourning of more than fallen gang members. When rappers and icons Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. were murdered within six months of each other in September 1996 and March 1997, respectively, many saw the RIP T-shirt as a way to express their collective mourning – the same way Candice (in the opening) used her shirt to stand and mourn with her family even though she could not be present at the funeral.
RIP T-shirts are part of the expressive culture so present in African American mourning that allows us to speak the truth of African American life – truth that is underscored by a demand for justice. RIP T-shirts of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and so many other unarmed or misidentified Black Americans murdered by the police serve as call to action.
- Christopher G. Ellison and Darren E. Sherkat, “The ‘Semi-involuntary Institution’ Revisited: Regional
Variations in Church Participation among Black Americans,” Social Forces 73, no 4 (1995): 1415–1437. Return to text.
- For more information on second funerals see David R. Rodiger, “And Die in Dixie: Funerals, Death,
& Heaven in the Slave Community 1700-1865,” Massachusetts Review 22, no. 1 (1981): 163–183; and Suzanne
E. Smith, To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death (Cambridge, MA:
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010). Return to text.
Kami Fletcher is an associate professor of American & African American History at Albright College and president of the Collective for Radical Death Studies. She is the co-editor of Till Death Do Us Part: American Ethnic Cemeteries as Borders Uncrossed, a comprehensive study of how burial customs highlight social status and class arguing how death is not the great equalizer.