The following is a guest post from Courtney R. Baker, the author of Humane Insight: Looking at Images of African-American Suffering and Death.
When I first published my book on looking at images of African American suffering and death, I would say to any who asked that my wish was that no one would need to write its sequel, that its lessons would quickly become obsolete. Sadly, the contrary has taken place. Not only are there more recorded images of astonishing episodes of unwarranted Black death, but our language about what it means to look at these visualizations—documentary or fictionalized—has become increasingly fractured. What do we do with these images? How do we engage or disengage productively with them in our quest for racial justice and an end to the violences that they depict?
Taking these questions seriously, I worked to historicize these images. The lesson that I learned in studying the wisdom of great African American activists like Mamie Till (mother of Emmett Till), Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King, Jr. is that engaging with the terror and sorrow of injury is a burden that is unfairly distributed to black Americans. Under the regimes of slavery and Jim Crow, black people disproportionately bore witness to the injury of their racial kin. More to the point, these regimes made the spectacle of black injury an essential mechanism of social domination. When a person was lynched or an enslaved person was tortured, their fellows could do nothing but watch for fear of violent reprisal. Looking was rendered an important technique of anti-blackness.
But looking is not necessarily the weak gesture that the slavers and the lynch mob envisioned. With the assistance of the press—in particular, the black press, the international press, abolitionist newspapers, and the television news program—looking upon these scenes of violence also cohered a vocal, powerful community of outraged onlookers—many of whom showed up for Emmett Till’s open-casket funeral or were themselves motivated to go on freedom rides and marches in the long walk toward civil rights.
Certainly, some looked away, and there is no shame in acknowledging that the abundance of these images and the cruelties that they depict still disproportionately bear upon the psychic lives of African Americans. That said, I depart from the view that individual aversion should determine the entire conversation about these images. Nor can I embrace the perspective that these images only perpetuate harm. Significant shifts in the social and political conditions of African Americans and in the status of the image and its circulation (in the 24-hour news cycle and on social media, for example) mean that the conversation and our thinking must shift—not disengage—again.
The recent video collaboration between Childish Gambino (Donald Glover’s musical persona) and his longtime director Hiro Murai is an example of a fresh challenge to our thinking about images of violence and the role of black masculinity. Several essays, video breakdowns, and “listicles” have inventoried the many cultural references packed into the short video. They offer useful insights on the many “easter eggs”—the nod to Fela Kuti’s styling and political musical legacy, the invocation of a white supremacist’s recent massacre of a black congregation, and the distractions of black entertainment that are valued more than black life—contained in the video.
It is important, too, to acknowledge that the video is more than just a litany of clever references. “This Is America” is a work of art, and we would do well to think hard about the conditions for this particular creation. No less a scholar than W. E. B. DuBois once wrote of African American art that, “somehow, somewhere eternal and perfect Beauty sits above Truth and Right I can conceive, but here and now and in the world in which I work they are for me unseparated and inseparable. … Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy.” (“Criteria of Negro Art” ) We would do well, then, to think about the conditions and criteria for black—nay, for human art amidst these sadly enduring conditions of lethal anti-blackness.
-Courtney R. Baker, Occidental College