Black activist slams jewelry line with pieces named after Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and others slain by police: 'Justice isn’t jewelry'

·6 min read
"Wear Their Names" pieces have been dubbed in honor of Black men and women killed by police officers. One activist says it's commodifying tragedy. (Paul Chelmis/Post and Courier)
"Wear Their Names" pieces have been dubbed in honor of Black men and women killed by police officers. One activist says it's commodifying tragedy. (Paul Chelmis/Post and Courier)

Following backlash, the Charleston, S.C.-area creators of a jewelry line made with shattered glass from local Black Lives Matter protests and rioting has shut down its website.

The move comes after activist and organizer Mika Gadsden called out the jewelry collection, called “Wear Their Names,” after coming across it in her Twitter feed and feeling instantly that it “bastardized a movement” while commodifying the suffering of Black people.

“I stumbled across this story in my Twitter feed, and it’s not hyperbole when I say I’ve never responded so quickly to something so egregiously ill-conceived in Charleston. I’ve never reacted that fast,” she tells Yahoo Life, recalling the moment she saw a feature on the jewelry line in the Post and Courier. “I pushed myself to finish the article in record time to make sure I got all of the details, to see if this was a joke — maybe there’s more to the story.”

As a daughter of Jim Crow refugees who returned to the South as an adult, Gadsden says she is particularly well-versed with racist atrocities in Charleston, where she continues to focus her activist efforts. But even within the current climate of ongoing injustices affecting Black men and women across the United States, Gadsden says that seeing pieces of jewelry named after those killed by police — Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Trayvon Martin and others — was one of the more jarring experiences yet.

The story Gadsden read told the story of photographer Paul Chelmis and his girlfriend, Jing Wen, who said they watched the riots on Facebook Live since they weren’t in Charleston at the time. “My camera is my greatest weapon of making a difference in the world, and it was killing me I couldn’t be there to document that moment,” Chelmis told the publication. By the next morning, the couple had returned to King Street to collect glass from the shattered windows, with a plan to “make something beautiful out of the rubble.”

Chelmis and Wen went on to explain that they had already thought about starting a nonprofit jewelry line and figured this would be a small collection within it. “I’m kicking myself for not gathering 10 times as much glass,” he said. But with what they had, they created the “Wear Their Names” collection of the jewelry line that would be called Shan Shui. The Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston quickly got on board with plans to sell the items in its gift shop. All profits from sales would reportedly be donated to an organization called From Privilege to Progress, looking to desegregate the conversation about race.

Immediately after reading the local story, Gadsden took to her Instagram page to go live and share her outrage about the jewelry line as a response to racist violence, with a caption that started off “STOP COMMODIFYING BLACK DEATH.”

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The organizer went on to describe Shan Shui as a type of performative activism that has an outward appearance of contributing to the Black community but instead makes money off the community’s suffering. She saw that as being “reminiscent” of the history of lynchings throughout the United States and specifically Charleston.

“When you name a bolo tie after Eric Garner, the gruesomeness just leapt from the page. It’s so Charleston to mischaracterize that gruesome exercise as charity,” she says. “They made something gruesome look beautiful.”

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Yahoo Life was unable to reach Chelmis as a result of his shutting down his websites and social media pages. Gadsden, however, says that the man behind the “Wear Their Names” project reached out to her via Instagram as soon as she went live. “Paul’s immediate response on behalf of Shan Shui was a mix of defensiveness and ‘Hey, we know we’re wrong.’”

Gadsden and Charleston-based radio personality Kris Kaylin were the first to report and speak out on the issue on Sept. 3, prompting the Gibbes Museum of Art (which did not respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment) to pull the jewelry line from its store, according to the Post and Courier.

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The owners of Shan Shui additionally provided a statement to the Post and Courier explaining that the project would be halted. The brand also posted an apology to its social media pages, which have since been deleted.

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Still, the issue didn’t gain nationwide attention until another young activist shared the original Post and Courier story on Twitter, where it wound up going viral.

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As of Thursday, Shan Shui’s social media accounts and website have been taken down. Gadsden calls the widespread response “validating” after initially bringing attention to the issue almost one week before news spread widely.

“It’s validating. I don’t really need credit as much as it’s validating to see people from major publications acknowledge how grotesque this was,” she says. “To see this story reverberate five days later and to actually take hold, it’s validating.”

Still, the activist hopes that people will look beyond this one instance to learn more about the larger issue at play.

“White people feel entitled to tell us what we should do with our pain and how we should memorialize it,” she says. “This is the time for white and non-Black POC folk to listen to Black people, not to take up space — and that’s what they did.”

Most important, she says, “Justice is not jewelry. Especially not jewelry named after Black bodies. Its heinous.”

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