David Byrne chose to end his recent sold-out audio/visual/theatrical celebration at the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts with a deeply moving take on Janelle Monae's "Hell You Talmbout." Fans might have been expecting a run-through of a favored Talking Heads hit to wrap up the show on a high note.
Instead, they got a rhythmic roll call featuring the names of African-Americans whose stories came to an abrupt halt due to race-based violence. The crowd was exhorted to "Say his name" as the roll call progressed. To call the moment a powerful one is to fall short of capturing it.
Byrne's performance was still fresh in my mind when I first came across the name Draylen Mason. That name was not plastered all over above-the-fold newspaper stories. I didn’t hear the name on television. There was no massive public outcry, at least not one that made it this far north of Mason's Austin, Texas, home, where a package bomb left on his doorstep ended his life after a mere 17 years last week.
President Trump did not rush to decry yet another act of terrorism on American soil. Already underway nearby when Mason picked up the package that would end his life, the annual SXSW music festival went ahead largely as planned, though a bomb threat caused the Roots to cancel its gig on Saturday evening.
But when I looked at Mason's picture, and read a New York Post article detailing how friends and family remembered him, my world immediately moved from the constant roar and whir of directionless motion we are being conditioned to accept as reality, to a place of silence and absolute stillness.
In the photos, Mason is playing an upright bass. And looking at his hopeful, determined, proud and passionate countenance as he played, I immediately saw in him a reflection of my own son. The effect was visceral, and I broke down and cried.
Mason was the same age as my son. He played the same instrument. He had just set out on a life that all who knew him were convinced would be dedicated to music.
The similarities were just too much for me. They should be too much for all of us. That pain, that feeling of connection, that heartbreak, that sense of loss – it's called empathy. Empathy is what makes it known to us that we are connected to each other as human beings who are born, will die and spend the time between struggling to balance our triumphs and failures. That the unjust suffering of one is the unjust suffering of all. That this 17-year-old you never met is the same as the 17-year-old you raised yourself.
"At just 17, Draylen Mason had the 'chops' to study music in college and one day play the bass or piano professionally, his instructors said," begins the New York Post piece. "The Austin teen, in fact, was well on his way to making that dream a reality, having been accepted to the University of Texas. But that overflowing ambition was snuffed out when Mason was killed and his mother wounded when a package bomb exploded as they opened it in their kitchen on Monday.
Friends, teachers and acquaintances of Mason said the 'talented to the max' teen had a lot of potential success in front of him and had a reputation as a warm and happy kid who was simply 'full of life,' according to one professor."
Mason's death is part of a string of bombings in the Austin area that appear to have specifically targeted African-Americans. One other person – 39-year-old Anthony Stephen House – was killed, and several more injured in four separate blasts. The bomber, a white male, died after detonating an explosive inside his vehicle as SWAT teams closed in on him in the early hours of March 21.
We so often don’t feel the pain and loss experienced by others until something similar happens to us. This is part of the problem, part of the reason these acts of hate-filled domestic terrorism continue to happen at an alarming rate, while we go on our way, pretending this is normal. We have forgotten how to empathize. And without empathy, we are doomed.
So look at his picture. And say his name: Draylen Mason.