Black Death as Spectacle and Ritual

A black person does not really discuss black people dying without also feeling a subtle contempt or masochism, but there is also gratitude when black death is made public (à la Mamie Till, Emmett Till’s mother, insisting for the world to see what America did to her son by having an open casket funeral for his unseeable soul) — because there are so many black deaths that are ignored by mass media, or simply forgotten — but how could one forget what one never thought was worth knowing, counting, excavating, cherishing? It’s almost as if you can kill a black person for existing, while also denying they ever truly existed. We want to say with Mamie, “Look what they are doing to us! Still!!!”, and are grateful for this chance, but also frustrated and shameful that our cries continue to fall on deaf ears. Why grieve at all? Who is even listening — we ourselves are tired of grieving and listening to others grieving for us. As long as its another black person, and not myself, whose family will have to deal with the aftermath of their unjust loss (and no real hope of actual justice), how does that affect my mental health?

We of darker persuasions cannot mourn ourselves every day, or can we? Are we built to mourn and live like this? The twin archetypes of the strong black woman and hyper-masculine black man have the answer: of course, we are built for this. A prerequisite of these archetypes is the inability to feel pain — and denial of pleasure, conversely — and the failure to perceive pain in others: an utter lack of basic humanity. Blackness under the western gaze is not sentient — it cannot think or feel in any civilized way, which is the only way that counts. (Of course dark people can think and feel in primitive ways, isn’t that what the continent of Africa is for?) This is why some white people can be very passionate about animal ethics or environmental causes but somehow cannot process basic principles of structural racism, hence the pejorative “animal whites”. In western thought, “black” is not characterized by viable boundaries and demarcations, but more aptly by what it lacks: the holy grail of whiteness. This is similar to how de Beauvoir describes feminine qualities under the masculine gaze in The Second Sex.

“He [Man] thinks of his body as a direct and normal connection with the world, which he believes he apprehends objectively, whereas he regards the body of woman as a hindrance, a prison, weighed down by everything peculiar to it. ‘The female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities,’ said Aristotle; ‘we should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness.’ And St Thomas for his part pronounced woman to be an ‘imperfect man’, an ‘incidental’ being. This is symbolised in Genesis where Eve is depicted as made from what Bossuet called ‘a supernumerary bone’ of Adam.”

Whatever black is, is irrelevant; it’s only important to know that it’s not white — which is perhaps one reason why white immigrants could gradually (only after deep shame and self-contempt) trade in their ethnic pride for the immaculate coin of whiteness. The Italians, the Irish, the Greeks, and many in eastern Europe who have definite Asian or African ancestry all had to become “white” — and becoming something that doesn’t exist requires much conjuring, sorcery, and blatant deception.

Ellison echoes the same in a 1970 essay, What America Would Be Like Without Blacks,

“Since the beginning of the nation, white Americans have suffered from a deep inner uncertainty as to who they really are. One of the ways that has been used to simplify the answer has been to seize upon the presence of black Americans and use them as a marker, a symbol of limits, a metaphor for the “outsider.” Many whites could look at the social position of blacks and feel that color formed an easy and reliable gauge for determining to what extent one was or was not American. Perhaps that is why one of the first epithets that many European immigrants learned when they got off the boat was the term “nigger” – it made them feel instantly American. But this is tricky magic. Despite his racial difference and social status, something indisputably American about Negroes not only raised doubts about the white man’s value system, but aroused the troubling suspicion that whatever else the true American is, he is also somehow black.”

And Baldwin picks up the torch in On Being White and Other Lies:

“No one was white before he/she came to America. It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country…. America became white—the people who, as they claim, “settled” the country became white—because of the necessity of denying the black presence, and justifying the Black subjugation.”

This positioning of blackness as outsider, outlaw, something lacking agency, uniqueness, responsibility and thus any truly productive role in society, is the start of “black death as spectacle” and a hallmark feature of whiteness. The spectacle is, as Du Bois says,

“a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

Onlookers are amused because they don’t understand how a people so gifted can still be suffering so greatly in a country that they built. The onlooker’s detachment from black suffering buttresses their amusement. The black person alike can be detached from the suffering of their own people by bleak attempts to assimilate towards external markers of whiteness and respectability that it promises.

As Ellison briefly touched on, the paradox of black death is how undeniably and uniquely American we are (regardless of how much we wish otherwise). No matter how much the police and government and our nonblack neighbors convince us otherwise. We may not have all came here by choice, but we came and built this land with our sweat, tears and intelligence — which is why it hurts all the more that black lives don’t seem to matter to our country and our people. 

***

In her 1969 book Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross outlines the five steps of grief that usually occur when a person encounters their own death. This is analogous to what can happen when we witness an unprovoked loss of black life. The stages are as follows:

Denial

Usually accompanied by shock (“How could this have happened to someone so young or educated or civilized or promising or successful or harmless? What could they have possibly done to deserve this? How were they able to do this on camera? Weren’t body cams supposed to enforce an honor code?”)

Anger

Persistent denial quickly leads to full-blown rage and disgust (“Fuck the police and this country. I hate white people and white supremacy. Why does this always happen to us?”). These feelings are not new, but simply resurface over and over again to deal with recurring grievances. Anger towards ourselves for not doing something about it sooner (but also feeling helpless because we have no idea how to stop it), towards black people for not rising up and forming some militia of the people, angry at non-blacks for being so complacent with black death

Bargaining

Appeals to respectability politics and persistent rationalization are performed: (“The assailant must have had a good reason”, “the officer feared for their life and did they best they could, it’s a tough job, lives will get lost, sorry”, “the victim had a history of criminal offenses or drug abuse, petty or otherwise”, “The victim shouldn’t have been in that place at that time of day/night or should have just done what the officer told them to do”, “The officer should have had their body cam on, then there would be no ambiguity about exactly how it went down”, “The family life or childhood of the victim has some minor detail that justifies their imminent demise”

Anyone, not just black people, can bargain in this way and make excuses for the incident. Respectability politics for black people is merely a special case of the well-known  “just world fallacy”

Depression

This phase can last for months and years and takes a severe toll on black mental health worldwide, especially those who lose family members or see the events live. The candid realization that black lives don’t matter, and there are still people who argue that advocating for your survival is a terrorist act — which, technically, it is! Because it brings absolute terror to the idea of whiteness having the sole claim to which lives do and don’t matter.

Acceptance

“Well, we should make peace with our status”, having “the talk” with your black children, “We can’t prevent ourselves from being killed, we can’t really bear arms or shoot back, and when killed, we are unlikely to receive justice, so we should lower our standards and do the best we can”, me being paranoid that having a broken taillight can lead to my death (à la Sandra Bland), normalcy and desensitization of black death takes center stage:

“What happens when instead of becoming enraged and shocked every time a black person is killed in the United States, we recognize black death as a predictable and constitutive aspect of this democracy? What will happen then if instead of demanding justice we recognize (or at least consider) that the very notion of justice — indeed the gamut of political and cognitive elements that constitute formal, multiracial democratic practices and institutions — produces and requires black exclusion and death as normative?” – Joy James & Joāo Costa Vargas, Refusing Blackness-as-Victimization: Trayvon Martin and the Black Cyborgs

Unconsciously, this perpetual cycle of grief can lead us to agree with the general public opinion that we are “a problem”, (whether we are our own problem to fix or it is our environment’s fault is another question entirely, usually set up as a false dichotomy) which Du Bois noticed long ago in the beginning of The Souls of Black Folk

“Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half- hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.”

Du Bois’s playful way describes perfectly why having nuanced conversations about race is so difficult with white people; they so often don’t want an answer to the real question: How does it feel to be black, to be at the bottom of this brutal yet worthless racial hierarchy? Black feelings are white nightmares.

White people usually don’t have the patience to listen to this answer, because they congenitally lack the patience and nuance to examine their own complicity. Whiteness is curable if the owners know its true cost. White people, in the main, have failed to be human, because they are too busy trying to be white. But they are too white to admit this, and yet drowning in white guilt is neither salve nor salvation. 

***

And finally, we find ourselves at the performance art piece, or the conspicuous consumption of black death as a spectacle — as something to be gawked at, internalized, amused by, as a perennial window into western morality, to be pitied and empathized from afar but never entering the heart of the matter, on how collective black rage/action is the world’s worst nightmare (even for some black people themselves to honor the rage they have every right to) — and as ritual, an almost religious experience that ensures the spectacle plays out its script via mass media, pleas for respectability politics, and calls to action that want reform without revolution:

The Spectacle:

public display and knowledge of black death, which renders blacks privy to embarrassment and humiliation, and offers non-blacks a chance to internalize black inferiority — and for both parties to assume that justice will not be served no matter how clear-cut the case may seem.

private knowledge as blacks navigate feelings of self-hate, self-pity, and decide how best to fight back against the world’s assumption of their innate inferiority and still love being black, and not simply tolerate it.

The Ritual is simply the performance of the spectacle, day after day, with these key underwriting features:

  • repetition (it happens again and again, seemingly without end, since this country’s inception)
  • These incidents may follow one another in quick succession, within days or weeks. One event’s grief can overshadow the other. A very essential demoralizing effect — why grieve for one of them when they all happen so fast? why grieve at all?  This is the entry point into learned helplessness. Rage must be distilled into apathy or else it becomes lethal to the oppressive regime. The ritual usually does not end in anger, but makes the full cycle through to depression and acceptance and starts anew upon another incident.
  • Outrage and call to arms (riots, protests, public displays of morning and rage, black separatism through self-sufficiency, chastising whites for being complicit with their inaction or for actively denying that it even happened, sharing information about the incident on public media) as public outrage responds then quickly retreats as event fades from public memory
  • Church folk praying for strength to forgive those who are complicit in black death, which ostensibly will also help the praying black person not to hold a grudge against American society for its deliberate blindness to the black plight.
  • The dissemination and proliferation of black death as film and image on social media in our age is meant to drive home the concept of learned helplessness, which is basically the default black mindset today, rage distilled into apathy. This reinforces a deep powerlessness as you see cops explain away everything in court.

***

Every black person in America is raging eternally beyond belief in their private life — the real difference is how it manifests itself in public life. Every black soul must — and will, no matter how much they run and hide — grapple with the incessant sermon on the mount concerning their own public worthlessness, which is meant to guarantee the adoption of private suicide, the annihilation of black intellect, agency and hope. But, take care to know that this doesn’t mean white supremacy wants to elimination of black life but merely the reins and subjugation of black spirit; it simply demands the cooperation (complicit or not) of black people in the maintenance of the laws and systems that routinely deny their basic humanity — hence the eternal return to our old friend, “the politics of respectability” as a last-resort plea to the powers that be: “Don’t hurt us or our children. We know how to render ourselves harmless, unlike those other negroes. We will get educated, speak proper English, dress appropriately and be respectful contributors to the economy. We admit to our own disposability and inferiority and hope American culture can have a civilizing effect upon us. We won’t confront white fragility with our black rage”. This has been the most common response to white power and even if it outwardly works, a piece of the soul is drawn into self-loathing every time this strategy is used. Any politic of respectability is unremitting and unabashed self-hate. What would a true politics of black liberation look like? I’m sure there are black people who can say it better for us, but a passage from the beautiful Andrea Dworkin captures the core urgency of a holy rage that nurtures neither apology nor reluctance:

“Imagine– in present time–a woman saying, and meaning, that a man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing her. Suppose there were a politics of liberation premised on that assertion–an assertion not of ideology but of deep and stubborn outrage at being misused, a resolute assertion, a serious assertion by serious women. What are serious women; are there any; isn’t seriousness about freedom by women for women grotesquely comic; we don’t want to be laughed at, do we? What would this politics of liberation be like? Where would we find it? What would we have to do? Would we have to do something other than dress for success? Would we have to stop the people who are hurting us from hurting us? Not debate them; stop them. Would we have to stop slavery? Not discuss it; stop it. Would we have to stop pretending that our rights are protected in this society? Would we have to be so grandiose, so arrogant, so unfeminine, as to believe that the streets we walk on, the homes we live in, the beds we sleep in, are ours–belong to us–really belong to us: we decide what is right and what is wrong and if something hurts us, it stops. It is, of course, gauche to be too sincere about these things, and it is downright ridiculous to be serious. Intelligent people are well mannered and moderate, even in pursuing freedom. Smart women whisper and say please.” – Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women

 

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