A Closer Walk With Thee: A Jazz Funeral for Black Men Who Have Died Unjustly

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On Monday evening, many Brown students and Providence residents gathered around the steps of Manning Chapel to honor African-Americans who were killed in recent years due to police brutality and gun violence. The ceremony and procession, organized by graduate students at the Alpert Medical School in collaboration with the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life and the Brown University Center for Students of Color, served as a powerful memorial for the many African-American lives that were taken too soon.

The memorial commenced with a brief introduction and several moving speeches from Rev. Janet Cooper Nelson, the organizers of the event, and representatives from The Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence. The speakers mourned the deaths, read the names of the many dead men and women (each followed by a poignant “unarmed”), urged the crowd to force the issue of racism to be confronted in their lives and in America, and yearned for justice for the fallen. The service also featured a performance by Brown’s Gospel Choir, a poetry reading, and a solo, a cappella arrangement of “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” (the namesake of the event).

From there, the Extraordinary Rendition Band began a conventional jazz funeral procession, behind which the crowd followed with illuminated white candles. The jazz funeral is a two-part tradition rooted in New Orleans; usually, the procession begins with a series of somber hymns as the body is carried to the cemetery to be buried and then transforms into a parade of upbeat tunes after the final goodbyes have been said. The idea is to mourn the passing of the dead and to then celebrate their beautiful lives. This is exactly what occurred on Monday night. The procession commenced with an eerily solemn version of “When The Saints Go Marching In.” The band’s energy grew, and soon the song transformed into an outpour of emotion, embodying the woe and sorrow of those who gathered to mourn. The procession exited the Quiet Green through the Van Wickle Gates, headed down Prospect Street, made a left, and turned on to the Main Green. Many sang along, physically expressing their emotional connections to the music and to the victims that were being honored. Then, the band abruptly switched into an upbeat, celebratory hymn. The energy of the crowd became more and more cheerful as it approached J. Walter Wilson. Here, the band finished its joyful song, leaving the procession with an overwhelming feeling of hope.

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Participants gather in the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life to sign a poster commemorating the ceremony.

I stuck around afterwards and made my way up to the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life, where light refreshments were being served. Many of the marchers stopped by to sign a poster to commemorate the ceremony, while others chatted with each other and with the organizers of the event. I spoke briefly with the Chaplain of the University and learned more about how the event came to be. She described the initiative taken by the medical students, explained how the event gave members of the Providence community a much-needed moment to properly mourn those horrific deaths, and spoke of the beauty she beheld during the procession when she looked back at a sea of candles marching through campus in honor of the victims.

All in all, A Closer Walk With Thee served as a beautiful ceremony and a poignant reminder of the disturbing consequences of police brutality.

Images via Kevin Haggerty ’18

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