Kevin Samuels’ Death And The Politics Of “Grief Respectability”

·7 min read

In the weeks since Kevin Samuel’s death, there have been various reactions to his passing. Some praised the late YouTube host, a self-proclaimed “dating coach” for his years of spouting relationship advice masquerading as harmful rhetoric (aimed mostly at Black women). Others, many of which were Black women and gender expansive folk, publicly held Samuels accountable for the ways in which he perpetuated and benefited from antiblackness, fatphobia and misogynoir on his platform.

Like clockwork, this vital commentary was met with both the vitriol of his devout cishet male disciples who were devastated by the loss of their beloved dating coach and others who called for silence, respect and condolences for Samuels solely because he was deceased

With the constant reminders and images of Black death looming over our heads and hearts, we are a community that is ceaselessly grieving losses while simultaneously trying to find language to reflect on, honor and process death. That process is never easy. But shouldn’t your actions in life be reflective of how you’re spoken of in death? The constant need to honor bad men just because they have passed away is reckless, wilfully ignorant and wrong. Samuels shouldn’t be immune from judgment just because he is no longer around to spew hateful jabs at Black women.

Death has the ability to reveal painful truths, and some of these truths are hard — but necessary — pills to swallow.

Still, the connection between spirituality and the grieving process is an integral part of the Black experience. According to content creator and spiritualist Brandon Jerrod, African diasporic cultures are rooted in “seeing spirit in everything,” hence our sense of duty to take a lot of care and pride in revering the dead, including acts such as emblazoning late icons on t-shirts or “pouring one out.”

The communal reaction to Samuels’ death wasn’t an isolated event, Jerrod tells Unbothered. While these spiritual practices are meant to promote unity, they are usually reserved for certain people.

When it comes to the deaths of cis men we are told to hold our tongues, rally around efforts to fight injustice on their behalf, and disregard any and all actions from their waking life that don’t paint them in a positive light. From Tea Party Republican Herman Cain, to Donald Trump’s spiritual advisor Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr, and the late Colin Powell, there is a pattern of problematic, prominent men who have harmed our community being laid to rest with little to no accountability — or worse, the expectation that they deserved respect or admiration in death when they each wielded their influence in questionable ways while they were alive.

JD, a philosophy student, reminds us that this behavior, known as “grief respectability,” is a subset of respectability politics, which greatly impacts how Black people regard, connect and even protect each other and themselves.

“I think the Black community is attached to this because we play a game of respectability politics our whole lives. We have to fit ourselves into the boxes that an ongoing legacy of white supremacy has set out for us, and if we don’t we’re painted as ‘hoodlums,’ ‘thugs’ or as non-valuable members of society,” they state. “I think that Black people try to ignore the negatives of other Black people’s lives when they die so that they don’t have to keep playing those [respectability] games even in death; so they can establish another Black person’s worth and value with finality, since they can’t do anything new after death to have it taken away.”

The underpinning of grief respectability is that it not only absolves these men of their accountability, but it also further fuels the erasure of Black trans folk, gender expansive folk and women who have also lost and continue to lose their lives at high rates, and oftentimes by the very people who have the privilege of communal protection and prioritization.

“When Black women die, they are typically remembered by their proximity to men in their lives or by the relationships they had — not them as a person,” JD says. “Or even worse, they’re grieved according to desirability, often with comments like ‘oh she was so pretty!’, as if beauty makes a life less or more worth grieving. Black queer people — especially and specifically Black trans people — are not even grievable to the larger Black community for the most part. Whether it be because they don’t value us, don’t see us as legitimate, are ashamed of us, or view us as a community entirely separate from theirs, cishetero Black people generally don’t even hold space for Black queer and trans people when we die. And if they do, they usually aren’t respectful.”

I believe the flowers people are going to give me at the end of my life, are grown in my own garden, nurtured by my own hands.

eris eady

The monolithic perception of death and who is worthy of care and veneration plays a key role in reinforcing queerphobia and transphobia, which renders these identities silent and invisible both in life and death.

“We know Black MaGes (marginalized genders) don’t have access to the same care and respect. We have to be remarkably beautiful, wealthy, perfect, able-bodied and desirable to be seen as deserving of care and respect. And even then, it’s not a guarantee,” says Eris Eady, a Chief Equity and Learning Officer. “We aren’t seen as worthy; worthy to honor in death or worthy to be respected in life. How can you treat people well if you deem them as unworthy?

Eady continues on to connect grief respectability to performativity and religious conservatism. “It prescribes a way of being that values silence over speaking. I was led to believe that my silence would protect me (word to Audre Lorde) that if I didn’t hear about the hard things, I was absolved from its impact,” she says. “What happened instead is that the very things we refused to talk about began to impact me, the very same way it impacted the generation before. I tweeted ‘not speaking ill of the dead is how generational trauma gets passed down’ but I wasn’t just speaking solely about physical death. This could be the death of a relationship, job, friendship. [All death, both proverbial and otherwise] should be regarded with the same truths, no matter how uncomfortable. We have a duty to tell the whole story.”

And Samuels story is that he never ceased to demean Black women and femmes, particularly fat, Black femmes, using his YouTube platform of 1.47M subscribers to misgender them, name them as “low value,” and tell them that they were going to live a lonely life and die of a heart attack because of their size.

Death has the ability to reveal painful truths, and some of these truths are hard — but necessary — pills to swallow. In the case of people like Samuels, Black folks may feel more inclined to omit any mentions of problematic behavior to avoid these hard conversations, but this failure to sit with the truth comes at the cost of marginalized gendered folks’ safety. We need to be completely vulnerable and honest about people’s actions and recognize that we all have an individual responsibility in life to earn our respective legacies in death.

“I believe the flowers people are going to give me at the end of my life, are grown in my own garden, nurtured by my own hands,” Eady says.

We need to unpack the problematic behaviors of these men and accept these truths, regardless of personal connections or opinions. As Jerrod states, “it cannot always be ‘Rest in Power.’ Sometimes it’s ‘Rest in Peril.’”

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