R.I.P. Shirts or Shirts of the Movement

“R.I.P. Shirts or Shirts of the Movement: Reading the Death Paraphernalia of Black Lives.” M4BL and the Critical Matter of Black Lives, special issue of Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly, vol. 41, no. 4, 2018, pp. 807-830.

Abstract: This article presents a study of R.I.P. (rest in peace) shirts, also known as memorial shirts, which are significant and visible pieces in the Movement for Black Lives. While it is true that many people are “being memorialized by a hashtag,” the shirts, which are wearable memorials, are ever-present in the movement as well. Whether displaying the name or face of the deceased person, or a quotation from a famous ancestor like Martin Luther King, Jr., these shirts exert great power. In fact, many people ask how these memorial shirts can simultaneously evoke joy and pain. Just as some see wearing a memorial shirt as a way to honor the memory of a person no longer physically with us, others view it as a trigger that reignites the trauma associated with the person’s death. Hence, the study of memorial shirts necessarily includes an analysis of death, trauma, justice, and spirituality. In this article, I argue that the memorial shirts, or what I call the “shirts of the movement,” operate as a form of visual life writing; the shirts collectively (in reference to the larger movement) and individually (in reference to the deceased person) tell a story. I discuss how shirts of the movement preserve memories and call for action. More specifically, I contend that these shirts are not only symbols of grief, expressions of empathy, and coping mechanisms but are also a public stance against racial injustice and anti-Black racial terror. Research in this essay was covered by The Washington Post in an article titled “Where Gun Violence Abounds, Honoring Loved Ones with ‘Rest in Peace’ Shirts” after an interview with me by a Post reporter. That article is available here.