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Virgil Abloh

On Black men who die too soon

Virgil Abloh’s death has given me another reminder of my mortality

I was three paragraphs into an article about HBO’s documentary on DMX — the legendary rapper who died at 50 from a heart attack — when my Twitter timeline went haywire with news that 36-year-old Memphis, Tennessee, rapper Young Dolph had been gunned down while buying cookies. As this all was happening, there was 24/7 news coverage of the trial for the three men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery — the Black 25-year-old who was gunned down while jogging in his neighborhood.

I write all of this as so many are reeling from the unexpected death of Virgil Abloh, the artistic director of Louis Vuitton and founder of the Off-White brand, one of the rare Black folks in the industry who had managed to become known across the world on a first-name basis. He was 41 and had been suffering from cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare form of cancer, for two years. And I’m writing this on what would have been late actor Chadwick Boseman’s 45th birthday.

To be a Black man in America is to be reminded of your own mortality seemingly every hour. We can’t escape it. The aforementioned deaths are never in a vacuum. They’re collaborations between environmental racism, anti-Black violence, socioeconomic disparities, radicalized violence, hypermasculinity and an endless list of other ailments.

Each new death brings a new fear and new exhaustion. A new reason to go to the gym or schedule that doctor’s appointment or grab a handful of that wilting salad from the fridge or hold our children closer than we did yesterday. But on days like this, when the flood reaches our necks, it all feels fruitless. When each push against the stream feels like a waste of time, when the forces that drown us feel too big to fight.

Abloh — like Kobe Bryant, like Boseman, like Young Dolph — died with the world at his fingertips. Emerging as a tastemaker a decade ago after striking up a friendship with Kanye West while interning at Fendi, Abloh would join West in a number of ventures, most notably handling the artistic vision of the landmark Watch The Throne album in 2011. Two years later, West would go on a verbal rampage ahead of his Yeezus album, lambasting the fashion industry for its racism and the way it cashes in on Black culture without letting actual Black folks in the room.

Yet, Abloh was able to break through the barriers. He’d turn Off-White into one of the most sought-after brands in fashion, with his Nike collaborations selling out as soon as they were released and going for thousands in the aftermarket. Abloh’s minimalist, deconstructed approach became his signature, eventually propelling him to one of the highest positions at Louis Vuitton and the fashion industry as a whole. Owning any of his work was a sign of status and a validation of any hypebeast’s wardrobe.

Abloh had achieved his — and his peers’ — wildest dreams. What we didn’t know was that he was doing much of this while in tremendous pain over the last two years. Dying. Living.

Abloh didn’t work himself to death. But he worked until he died, traveling the world for events even as recently as a couple of weeks ago as he kept up his other hustles making furniture and DJing. His work ethic had become something of a legend within fashion and to those who knew him. (“There are people on Earth that dedicate themselves to their practice or whatever,” he told The Guardian in 2019. “I’ve always been like that.”) It’s a common refrain for us: to continue to push even to the end. Run through the finish line that reaches us before we’re ready.

This latest loss is another voice in a chorus that never stops singing, a reminder that the end is unstoppable and charging at us with a fierce tenacity. I didn’t know this was possible, but I think I’ve reached the end of sadness. The muscle has been overused. Now, when these deluges of death reach my doorstep, I just feel exhaustion. Fatigue pulls at me from the ground. I’m too weary to worry or cry or be angry. I’m just tired. But I’m scared to close my eyes for fear of what reminders of mortality are waiting for me when I wake up.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.