Culture Opinion

An Open Letter to the Participants in the Black Death Spectacle

It seems that much has been written about the phenomenon of the Black Death Spectacle in America — the ravenous appetite possessed by white Americans for images of the carnage and violence enacted on black bodies for nothing more than the satisfaction of their own sadistic impulse. All of this discourse around the subject, however, has not sated the appetite for such images. For all of the handwringing around the idea of proliferating videos and photographs of black tragedy, it has seemingly not progressed past that: handwringing. There is hemming and hawing, accompanied by lackluster finger wags towards those who still choose to participate in the ghoulish exhibition, but even so: the video of Ahmaud Arbery was the first thing that I woke up to on the morning of April 6th. It begs the question, “What exactly was the point?” I hate to keep bringing it up —because all of our feet are tired from retreading this ground — but did the controversy that surrounded the 2016 Whitney Biennial come to nothing? Was the outcry around the lynching videos of Tamir Rice, Philando Castille, and Sasha Garden among countless others only for show? The would-be selfless impulse that requires spreading these videos in search of justice through sharing this proof betrays a belief just beneath the surface — that black death is less than human death and therefore, has less of a right to be mourned and respected. 

Perhaps it began with the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955, where his mother made the decision to begin his funeral with an open casket viewing of her little boy. She said that she wanted the world to see what this unchecked racism and hatred had done to her child. Of course, the world could not look away. Back then it was something totally new. These sorts of images were not saturating the media of the 1950s, and it was a cold bucket of water for many Americans who were not aware of the horrors that existed just beyond Mason-Dixon. But that was then. 

With the proliferation of the internet coupled with the rise of mobile phones, it is now easier than ever to capture and distribute images of suffering and death. They are on our Twitter dashboards, news apps, and televisions. Many of these videos are taken with the same right-headed belief that Till’s mother had: that this will horrify audiences so much, they will have no choice but to change their ways. 

The truth is, however, sadly the opposite. Over the past decade, we have learned that this is not true and we were overestimating much too much the size of white America’s conscience. Cops are outfitted with body cameras and engaged in internal investigations. Regular racist nobodies are thoroughly lambasted by media figures and civilians alike; yet what has this come to? In the end, Ahmaud Arbery is dead and his murderers, Gregory and Travis McMichael, will sleep in their beds tonight, no doubt pleased with the suffering they have caused. So why do we keep sharing the video? When everything could be conveyed accurately in words: how do we justify the lynching and re-lynching of this 25-year-old man on social media, TV, everywhere? To my belief: posting and reposting the video is only killing him twice — just as it was only killing Philando Castile and Tamir Rice twice. And three times, and four: over and over again to infinity. 

For the nonblack people who feel compelled to share these images (where they would never share the images of the murder of a white person), I ask you: Why? What do you believe is gained or achieved from this? And to a fellow black person who feels this same instinct to make the world see what they do to us, I ask you: what would you do if Ahmaud Arbery was your brother? Or son? Grandson, nephew, cousin, uncle, father, or lover? Because he is. And though I will never tell an African American person how best to mourn our dead, I will ask you to question for yourself what is gained by exposing yourself — and by exposing others — to images like these. Because ultimately the answer to that question is absolutely nothing.

Shori Sims is a queer black woman originally from Maryland, but working and going to school in Pittsburgh, PA. They are interested in the ideas of girlhood — more specifically the girlhoods of queer black femmes, intimacy in the post-internet age, memory, and intersectional feminist activism.

Illustration by SPICY collective member Ally Zhao.