21: A Birthday Celebration for Trayvon Martin

Trayvon Martin would have turned 21 this month. It’s been four years since his violent death shook America like an earthquake, and we can still feel the aftershocks of grief when we remember his painful passing.

Story by Mia Uhunmwuangho
Photos by Stephanie Lyons

We remember him not as he was, but as he died. We remember him in his dark grey hoodie with the pack of Skittles and the bottle of Arizona Tea scattered around him. But we forget to remember Trayvon the football player, Trayvon the student who was about to graduate from high school or Trayvon the boy who used to earn some money by mowing his neighbors’ lawns. We forget to remember that the 17-year-old boy who died such a tragic death, was actually full of life.

To celebrate Trayvon Martin’s life, graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin X’ene Sky Taylor and Hakeem Adewumi held a 21st birthday celebration for him on Saturday, Feb. 6, the day after his birthday. The party took place at the Communities of Color building on Springdale Road in East Austin.

Graduate student X'ene Sky Taylor (far right) near drawings of Michael Brown and Aiyana Jones.

Graduate student X'ene Sky Taylor (far right) near drawings of Michael Brown and Aiyana Jones.

Art by Beth Rubel that featured images of Michael Brown, Aiyana Jones and the faces of others who died by police brutality lined the walls, but the mood was not somber. Music played as people danced and laughed. Taylor and Adewumi wanted the happiness to be infectious. “We inflict this sort of violence on people who died in very tragic ways,” Taylor says. “Every time we bring them up, their name is always attached to this really violent, horrific moment. We took this idea and created a narrative outside of that. These are full and complete people, so it’s important that we celebrate all of who they are.”

Music played a key role in moving the night along. Taylor and Adewumi handcrafted a playlist representative of Trayvon’s youth and personality. Taylor also sang a few songs that she wrote with fellow musician Jonathan Huggins to the audience. “We asked, ‘If he was still alive, what he would be doing?’” Taylor says. “He’d probably be partying or turning up. These are the sounds that he’d be hearing.”

Hakeem Adewumi (left) and Johnathan Huggins (right) stand near a drawing of Michael Brown.

Hakeem Adewumi (left) and Johnathan Huggins (right) stand near a drawing of Michael Brown.

The venue itself was just as important as the music. It served as a safe space for people of color to come together to celebrate without the weight of the world bearing down on them. It was a way for those in Austin to connect to the events that happened in Florida four years ago. “We’ve created a community over here,” Adewumi says. “We wanted to show that we’re actually human. We’re people. We have to step away sometimes and create what we need at the moment.”

These moments were not just tied to Trayvon Martin’s death. The connection to other racial issues happening in Austin such as racism on campus, the declining black population in Austin, and gentrification was evident. All of these issues intertwined that night in the historically black neighborhood on Springdale Road. “We see a lot of things about the black community in East Austin being violent or angry people, usually through these instances where they’re on the news,” Adewumi says. “But there’s a whole breath of life happening in this community. So when you report about what we do over here, report on the humanity that we possess as human beings.”

After a night of songs and dancing, the party moved outside where paper lanterns were lit in honor of Trayvon. The flames from the lanterns illuminated the night sky as the crowd took time to reflect on the meaning and impact of Trayvon’s death. Adewumi says he was 22 when Trayvon died. “It happened when I first came to Austin,” Adewumi says. “If I didn’t have a community to talk about it with, I don’t know how active I would be now. It gave me a grave example of how traumatic these experiences really are and how much we haven’t really moved forward in time.”

Paper lanterns lit up the sky in honor of Trayvon Martin.

Paper lanterns lit up the sky in honor of Trayvon Martin.

Taylor says that Trayvon’s death served as the catalyst for her involvement in social justice. “After that happened, it changed the course of my life,” Taylor says. “For a moment it left me really scared and helpless and vulnerable. But today, it drives me.”

Partygoers were also invited to share their experiences by writing on the posters which lined the walls of the building. The posters asked, “When did you realize you were an adult?” and “What was your 21st birthday celebration like?” to further connect the crowd with Trayvon.

The night finished with more music and dancing. The crowd sang the happy birthday song to Trayvon as Taylor and Adewuni cut a cake that was custom made for him. Although the party ended, the celebration of black lives was just beginning. “It’s important to celebrate ourselves in life and even in death, especially for black people, since those two things are so closely bound," Taylor says.  "It’s really important for our spirits, as well as the spirits that we’ve lost.”

So happy birthday, Trayvon. And happy Black History Month to all the brave black souls who remind us that we are lanterns, and that even in the midst of the flames, we will rise.