Chanel Scurlock Had a Design for Life That Was Simply Beautiful
She dreamed of becoming a makeup artist and clothing designer
This story is part of Know Their Names, a collection of articles illuminating and celebrating the lives of Black Trans women.
Looking at photographs of Chanel Scurlock, it’s difficult not to get lost in her eyes — deep and piercing yet playful. The false eyelashes she particularly loved to wear only intensified her stare. Her cheekbones, already naturally high, seemed even sharper with the contouring of her makeup, a subtle champagne stream of illumination shooting up toward her ears. In one of Chanel’s most eye-catching looks among the photos she shared online, she wore a striking blonde-tinted chin-length wig with the ends softly curled, her lips pouting and glossy. When she posed for a picture, she often looked like a modest Instagram model — not trying too hard, makeup natural, but her softly curved dark brown face was memorable all the same.
That she looked so put together in her photos was unsurprising, as Chanel for years had desired to be both a makeup artist and a clothing designer. She spent hours on her computer at home, conjuring up different sartorial designs, particularly dresses paired with high heels and jean jackets — the latter one of her favorite things to wear, along with designer handbags. Chanel hoped one day she would be able to formally study fashion at an institution — but perhaps not one too far from home, as she loved being near Brenda, her mother. Indeed, the two were together nearly every day, an inseparable pair.
One of Brenda’s favorite memories of Chanel is simple. Brenda was lying on her bed, facing the television, the remote by her feet, just beyond her reach. “I was just feeling lazy,” she says, chuckling over the phone, and Chanel “came into the room” without Brenda even needing to ask and handed her the remote. Chanel skipped out, then returned a minute later, grinning and carrying a drink for Brenda — again, before her mother could even request a beverage.
The two simple acts were exactly what Brenda wanted in the moment.
Chanel could easily intuit her mother’s wants, remembers Brenda with a gravelly laugh. It wasn’t the moment or the action itself that was striking—Brenda has many memories of her daughter just like that, going out of her way to be helpful. Instead, it was the accumulation of so many similar little selfless acts, the way Chanel was simply there for her, smiling and ready.
And Brenda was far from the only person to observe that impulse toward kindness in her daughter. Chanel seemed to carry an aura of love around the stretch of North Carolina where she grew up. She exuded a warmth that many of her friends, family members, and the customers at Sears in Cross Creek Mall, where Chanel worked, could feel if they didn’t already see it in her starlike eyes.
Brenda has many memories of her daughter going out of her way to be helpful — but it’s more the accumulation of selfless acts and the way Chanel was there for her, smiling.
She would “give [her] last shirt if [she] had it,” Tomeka McRae, one of her first cousins, told the Fayetteville Observer.
Chanel was gregarious and outgoing, even in a state like North Carolina, which infamously tried to pass a bill in 2016 that would force Trans people to use only public restrooms that corresponded with the gender marker on their birth certificates.
Despite the dangers, Chanel put herself out there. She was “eager to meet up” with people she connected with online, Brenda says. And although she didn’t like Chanel going to see strangers, Brenda didn’t always know when her daughter had gone out at all, because Chanel, for all her closeness with her mother, also had her own, more private life. She was “secretive” in that way sometimes, Brenda says.
“I know the lifestyle I live is dangerous,” Chanel told Shania Aguirre, one of her closest friends, according to an Associated Press interview. But she continued to try to live her life authentically as Chanel anyway, burning bright, as herself, even in the night of her home state’s respect for women like her.
Still, for a long time, she had kept Chanel to herself, perhaps not fully comprehending at first what it meant that she wanted to be known as this woman. But she knew, without question, that this was the person she wished to be, the woman she wanted to embody as she walked through marvelous dreams and mundane days alike. And Chanel had plans for this woman. As Shania revealed to the Associated Press, Chanel had confided to her that she wished to have reassignment surgery one day. “Chanel” was not some costume she put on; rather, she wanted to live as Chanel for the long term, in the way that allowed her mind and body to align the way she wanted.
Like some Trans women, Chanel found herself living two lives, symbolized by the fact that many of her friends and family members called her by her birth name. Yet she used a Facebook account under the name Chanel. When Chanel left home, Brenda says, she frequently wore women’s clothes, but at home with her family, she often as not presented as male, a kind of demarcation perhaps representing that Chanel was still coming to terms with how the contours of her identity might fit in with those of her home. A number of people, including Brenda, used male pronouns for Chanel, though Chanel requested that her friends use “she” and “her” when she was presenting as a woman.
Shortly after she turned 20, Chanel came out to her mother as queer. Brenda, ultimately, was accepting. She had become accustomed to seeing Chanel experimenting with makeup even before coming out, which Brenda says began after Chanel was finished with high school. But it took awhile for Brenda to acknowledge that her child was Transgender, rather than a gay boy. She was afraid, seeing her child presenting as a woman. Brenda knew it was dangerous enough in the United States for a Black boy to be gay, and to be openly Trans “was even more dangerous,” she says.
Still, she clearly loved her Chanel, regardless of how she perceived her identity. “That was my child. And I had to accept [her], whatever [s]he was — gay, bisexual, whatever,” Brenda told the Fayetteville Observer. “That was my child.”
Brenda wanted her child to be careful but also acknowledged that Chanel had her own life.
It was advice that has almost certainly come to haunt Brenda.
In June, at just 23 years of age, Chanel was shot and killed. According to Shania, Chanel had gone out that night, ostensibly to meet a man she had been talking with online. She told her mother that she was headed to a Chinese restaurant in the small town of St. Pauls, North Carolina.
Her final text to her mother was simple and tender, the kind of message that can seem at once neutral and—at least in retrospect — a kind of grim foreshadowing of her final hours alive. “Okay, Mommy,” the text read, in response to Brenda requesting that Chanel let her know when she was on her way home. It was 9:53 in the evening. “I love you.”
“It was the last I heard of her,” Brenda said in a rare media moment of gendering her daughter with a female pronoun. Hours later, she learned that her daughter’s body had been found in a field, riddled with eight bullets. After the shooting, Chanel had simply been “left to die,” according to Burnis Wilkins, sheriff of Robeson County. The man she had met, Javaras Hammonds, was arrested on suspicion of murdering and robbing Chanel.
In Brenda’s eyes, her child’s death was indisputably a hate crime. “It pisses me off,” she told the AP. “What else could it be?” It’s a story that has become all too familiar to many Black Trans women, where a meeting with a cisgender man ends with fury, if not fatality. And in a move that has come to be the frustrating norm, Chanel was misgendered and deadnamed in many news reports.
To mark her child’s passing, Brenda erected a small wooden cross, its poles wrapped in white ribbons, near the edge of the verdant field where Chanel’s corpse was found after the meetup with Javaras.
“[She’s] not here,” Brenda said in the AP interview, shaking her head. “And I gotta go on, so…” The cross — against which leans a red teddy bear, its vibrant hue a stark contrast from the green of the field — is subtle but beautiful, like Chanel herself. The marker bears Chanel’s birth name rather than her chosen appellation. The appearance of her deadname on the cross is one of those telling things — that, on the one hand, Chanel’s mother is allowed to remember her child the way she sees fit. But on the other, that Chanel, like so many other Trans women, doesn’t get to fully be remembered as herself, even at her own memorial site. She has been remembered yet also forgotten at the place of her death.
But those photos she so loved to take still show a snippet of who she was. At Chanel’s funeral, snapshots of her adorned the space where her loved ones reminisced about her incandescent warmth and beauty. All in all, around 125 attendees paid their respects to the woman they remembered in the pictures.
Even in death, it was hard to look away from her eyes.