THEOn the surface, it seems almost everyday. Birthday wishes voice messages for someone celebrating their special day. “Happy birthday, Oscar! I promised your mom that I would call you and say happy birthday! “initiates a voicemail. Others start with introductions of who’s calling and then jump into birthday messages. Some are just” Happy birthday, Oscar! “It’s normal, pedestrian, until your mother’s audio starts playing, Reverend Wanda Johnson.
“Oh, Oscar. You are so missed, ”he begins, his voice heavy with anguish. “My heart still aches for you. I think about you every day. And not a day goes by without you on my mind. “She laments:” Tomorrow, in five minutes, will be your 35th birthday and I miss you so much. I still have to get up and turn off the light because you are no longer here to turn off the light. Your life was too short. And I really love, love, love, love and miss you. My baby boy. Until we meet again. I love you MOM. Always. “
His son, Oscar Grant III, was killed on New Years Day 2009 by Bart’s traffic police in Oakland, California, his death caught on camera by witnesses. He was only 22 years old. 1800HappyBirthday.com, people in your community celebrate a milestone, your 35th birthday.
1800 Happy Birthday is an art installation that focuses on celebrating the birthdays of black and brown men and women who have been killed by law enforcement through birthday voice messages. Run by volunteers and supported by the community, the project focuses on subverting the narrative of the fallen, focusing less on death and more on life.
Visitors to the site are faced with a long list of names, some familiar, some not. The names are written in a Gothic font, and their sunrise and sunset dates are written in italics. For various names, expect a play button with celebratory voicemails, full of well wishes from callers through a hotline. Encouraged by community interaction and embraced by community memory, it is reminiscent of a street monument, like a mural or a bouquet of roses on a concrete sidewalk amid lit candles and stuffed animals.
Filmmaker and co-founder of EVEN / ODD production studios, Mohammad Gorjestani envisioned the series as a way to explore the intimate pain of such loss. He presented the loved ones and relatives of Philando Castile, Mario Woods and Oscar Grant III on the birthdays of the deceased. “What kept frustrating me in the news and the media was that they were always focusing on these tragedies in a way that really only focused on the immediate impact on families, the pain, the anger,” he said. And then they would move on to the next headline. I felt that was dehumanizing because thinking of people like Oscar Grant and George Floyd as martyrs of a movement is dehumanizing. I wanted to do something that looked at the quietest pain and the most humanistic side of people. “
With Covid-19 creating an obstacle for him as a filmmaker, Gorjestani reflected on ways to bring the series to life and came up with the idea for birthday voice messages. “Voice messages and birthdays are something that we have a certain nostalgia for. Everyone remembers receiving a call for their birthdays in voice messages. There is something extremely human about that, ”he said. After gaining approval from the Mario Woods family, the project was launched on the day San Francisco designated as Mario Woods Day, July 22. He adds: “Everyone can relate to a birthday. Everyone can relate to the people who call you on a birthday. It is like food. It is a universal language. “
The killing of black and brown people by law enforcement is a sensitive issue, often discussed insensibly. Because of this, 1800 Happy Birthday is intentionally more evocative than provocative. The project attempts to bridge the gap between humanity and the legacy of the fallen and the media coverage surrounding their death. “Actually, I don’t think this project is a pain, as I think it is an evolution of pain, which is celebrating, remembering, basically honoring people. To remember them. When you listen to these voice messages, they are very loving. They are remembering someone for how human they were, as opposed to the headline they were. I think it is important that we transcend simply by looking at these tragedies as just flaws in the criminal legal system, ”said Gorjestani.
Through the site, the victims are preserved in the public memory, in the seized voice messages created by their family, friends and community. “Which I think is powerful just over the audio, there is a certain command that I have noticed people [engage with] … You can’t help but listen, ”Gorjestani said. “It is also first person audio. This is not someone in the third person. You are speaking directly to someone. As a listener, you are remembering that these people were someone’s child, they were someone’s brother, they were someone’s sister, they were someone close to someone, unlike a name in the public realm. “
In fact, there is much more to one’s life than death. There was so much more to Oscar Grant III. When asked about his son, Reverend Johnson begins not with Oscar’s murder, but with his love of athletics, his intelligence, his zest for life, his wit, and his leadership skills. “Oscar was a young man who loved to play sports,” he said. “He played baseball, basketball, soccer. He loved being a leader in his own right. I remember one year he was on a baseball team. We had signed him up late so they ended up putting him on the team with some younger kids. Every time he got up, he hit a home run. Those kids looked up to him during that baseball season. “
She continued to share her interests and aspirations, lovingly sharing anecdotes about her son. “When he was young, he loved to pray in church, in front of the whole congregation,” he said. “He would love to sing in church in the choir and you could hear him being the loudest singer there. I’d be like ‘Boy! Hush, not so loud! And he would be louder! He was that kind of young man who always shone in front of the crowd. “She added,” Oscar was a father. He was a son. He was a brother. He was an uncle. He was a nephew and great-nephew. He aspired to become a barber. “
Grant’s short life presents the question of a life not lived, due to violent means, dreams, unfulfilled aspirations. Rev Johnson now runs a foundation named after Grant, where they organize sports programs and serve the community as she believes she would have, had she had the chance to live her life. Even before the series, she hosted community events on her birthday as a way to heal and help heal. Through 1800 Happy Birthday, she can maintain a space for her child even without the communal celebration.
“This project sheds a different light,” he said. “It humanizes Oscar. It gives you the opportunity to really know who Oscar is and it also gives you the opportunity to share what you thought about Oscar. It has definitely brought joy to my eyes all week. People call, wish him a happy birthday, sing to him… It just lets me know that no matter how much time has passed, Oscar will always be a part of me and will always be with me. It may not be here physically, but it is still in my heart and it is in other hearts where they can share that. “
Gorjestani hopes to spice up 1800 Happy Birthday in a similar way, as Johnson did with the Oscar Grant Foundation. At the moment, plans to expand the project to a book or a traveling physical art installation are theoretical, dependent on funding and of course Covid-19. Still, Reverend Johnson says the project’s existence and community involvement are encouraging to her.
“Oscar was a people person,” he said. “We had celebrated my birthday on the last day together that we had as a celebration. He loved birthday celebrations. It is this love of birthdays that makes this particular celebration of life so relevant to your legacy. “Oscar always loved celebrating,” she said, “He loved birthdays. He loved gifts. He was that kind of young man… Happy birthday gives me another feeling of happiness and joy that Oscar was a young man, that people care about him. He was a young man who had aspirations and goals. He was a young man who was going to be successful in this society if he had been given that opportunity. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism