Resisting the Spectacle and Restoring Life
On May 6, 2020, public theologian Ekemini Uwan tweeted: “No, I will not watch the video of #AhmaudArbery’s lynching. Don’t even ask me to. It’s dehumanizing. Black death is not for public consumption.” But on May 22, 2020, another video of Black death began circulating, this time the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. Since Eric Garner’s death at the hands of police in New York City in 2014, videos of Black men’s final moments have flooded the news and social media feeds with unholy regularity.
The history of images of Black suffering is a complicated one. Suffering bodies have been used to perpetuate white supremacy but also to inspire Black protest. However, we would do well to remember that the consequences of these images fall disproportionately on Black viewers. From the perspective of an art historian, I want to review the history of these representations, consider their impact, and suggest some ways to move forward faithfully.
A Double History
Images have always been an integral part of racial control in the United States. The pseudo-scientific photographs commissioned by Louis Agassiz to demonstrate Black inferiority, the photo postcards of lynchings created as souvenirs in the early 20th century, and the animalistic caricatures of Black bodies are well-known examples. These images all treated the Black body as a kind of malleable object. That is, like a piece of clay, Black bodies could be stuffed into unnatural positions for inspection, strung up and flayed, or stretched into exaggerated grotesqueness.
But images were also used for the cause of Black liberation. Here, two major approaches emerged. First, people like Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois used photographs of themselves and other well-educated Blacks to prove Black dignity and excellence. They circulated portraits where Black bodies adopted the posture, attire, and attitude of the cultural elite.
But the other visual strategy for liberation was to represent Black suffering in hopes of motivating broader social change. Abolitionists famously used a photograph of the horrifically scarred back of a formerly enslaved man to drum up white northern support for their cause. Ida B. Wells chose to publish a photograph of a lynching in an 1893 essay, “Lynch Law,” in order to underscore the seriousness of her anti-lynching activism. In a 1972 issue of The Black Panther, party leader Emory Douglas, collaged a 19th-century slave auction announcement onto a 1930 lynching photograph, drawing an explicit connection between chattel slavery and Jim Crow violence. And, of course, Mamie Till Mobley decided to photograph and publish the brutally mutilated body of her fourteen-year-old son, Emmett. “Let the world see what I have seen,” she proclaimed.
Each of these instances, of course, emerged from particular, complicated historical contexts and pressures. However, one important distinction to note is how the lived experiences of those who made or circulated the images and the lived experiences of the audience could radically shift the image’s function. For example, when Black newspapers ran photographs of lynchings, they took images intended to celebrate a white supremacist order and turned them into sites of righteous anger and mourning. They intervened, rather than simply replicating.
But such inversions are never simple or complete. White publishers refused to print the photographs of Emmett Till’s body because they were deemed too graphic. Perhaps, though, it was the active agency of Mobley’s Black body, agitating on behalf of her son, that was more threatening than the still images of his death.
The Cost of Black Memory
Scholar Leigh Raiford argues that photographs of Black suffering serve as a vital site of what she calls “critical black memory.” Black identity in America is forged through and in conversation with these images of suffering. History is not simply cited; it is negotiated and used for the present.
And yet, Raiford also acknowledges: “Black memory has also been a burden: it can turn experiences into icons, force racial and gender conformity, elicit prescribed responses to racial events, and produce an ambivalent myopia when it comes to recognizing political and social inequities endured by other marginalized groups.” For Black Americans, the repeated, personal interaction with images of Black suffering has its own weight and consequences. It can bring freedom, but it can also create chains.
Images and videos do not only shape how we perceive and judge others. They also shape how we imagine our own bodies moving through space. In his autobiography, A Time of Terror, James Cameron recounts his miraculous survival of a lynching in Marion, Indiana, in 1930. Cameron, who was then sixteen years old, describes the moments prior to his inexplicable release in photographic terms.
As he stands below a tree where other bodies already hang, a noose already around his neck, time slows and fractures. In his mind, the crowd around him — full of familiar community members — becomes flat film negatives. Cameron anticipates his own violent death through the images of Black death he has already seen.
What happens when images of Black suffering become a personal script? A blueprint for how one expects his or her own life to end? As numerous psychologists and sociologists have cautioned, seeing repeated images and videos of Black death is unquestionably traumatic for Black viewers. Many worry that we are simply becoming desensitized to the pain.
Today, cell phone cameras and the tangled web of internet virality complicates the role of ownership and agency even further. The lynching of Ahmaud Arbery was filmed by a participant. The lynching of George Floyd was filmed by bystander, hoping for police accountability. But both moved through online channels easily, accompanied by opposing interpretations and intentions for sharing.
It is of little comfort that the existence of video evidence compelled government officials to eventually press charges against the perpetrators of these acts of violence. In many other instances, such video evidence was deemed insufficient.
Tragically, it seems unlikely that the creation and circulation of such photographs and videos will cease any time soon. So how might we move faithfully in this space? I have three brief suggestions.
First, consider how the mass reproduction of a video or image can destroy rather than strengthen its power. Digital technology allows us to replicate and disseminate images at rates that were unthinkable when Ida B. Wells or Mamie Till Mobley made their choices to reveal Black suffering publicly.
When images of death vastly outnumber images of life, what damage is done to the imago Dei? To compel each other to watch Black death runs the risk of moving from bearing witness to entertaining spectacle.
Second, more than ever, we need artists to help us do the restorative work of re-seeing the imago Dei where it has been publicly erased.
Artists and designers like Andres Guzman (@andresitoguzman), Nikkolas Smith (@nikkolas_smith), Ariel Sinha (@arielsinhaha), and Shirien Damra (@shirien.creates) have created portraits of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd that ask us to see these people as active subjects with dignity. Established artists like Henry Taylor have even transformed the viral video still into monumental, somber paintings that invite us to somber, more private contemplation. In his 2017 painting The Times Thay Aint A Changing, Fast Enough, Taylor removes the blood staining Philando Castile’s shirt, refocusing our attention on the man rather than fetishizing the site of violence.
Finally, let us not neglect the important work of building an alternative archive, an alternative image script for Black bodies. We need images of Black dancing and cooking and loving and building and preaching and singing and gardening and braiding. I have been particularly grateful for the work of Renata Cherlise at her Blvck Vrchives project (@blvckvarchives) where she has been collecting historical but largely unfamiliar photographs of the Black experience in America.
Remember that seeing should be a purposeful action, not passive consumption. To do justly, we must be able to see rightly and fully.