The Spectacle of Black Death: Remembering Our Killed or Rekindling Their Murders?

by Phillip B. Williams

This past Monday, Ashley Fantz and Bill Kirkos wrote for CNN that leaders in Chicago are asking for calm as they await the release of video footage from a police dashcam showing an officer shooting Laquan McDonald’s 16 times.

For my hometown, already falsely mythologized for being the most violent city in the US, tensions are high and the aftermath of this video’s release is predicted to be the tipping point for Chicago residents. But part of this tension is the media’s creation, a manipulation of emotions that incite rage by way of sensationalist language that acts as premeditated demonization of acts that have yet to occur and of people who are always already considered demonic.

The video has been described as “graphic, disturbing, and difficult to watch,” as though any other description for a video of this kind could be possible. It’s very similar to cartoon characters shouting from behind a closed door “Oh no! Please don’t open this door right here!” while menacingly rubbing their hands together, hardly able to contain their enthusiasm to spring the trap once the door opens.

Depictions of dead Black people and the recurrence of said depictions have debatable merit when considering the importance of witnessing the abominable in order to inspire change. But for many Black people, the endless portrayal of lifeless Black bodies is no more politically inspiring than visiting an endless funeral where mourning takes precedence over anything else.

bettina judd on mike brown exhibit

Or our pain as a box in which the status quo, the public transformation of Black life into Black corpses, is made into aesthetic, the box being itself the status quo, its interaction with history one of revising itself by containing itself. How does one hide something in plain sight?

Another question is “for whom is this representation made?” where the answer never takes into consideration the incessant rejection that those who are victimized are hardly ever the audience, just those on stage entertaining or, in this case, educating those in power. Frequently the act of forced education slips easily into entertainment, and whether or not this is useful seems to always be a tension across disciplines and populations.

What is evident is that when it comes to the idea of educating white people about race and privilege the onus of responsibility is placed on the very people who suffer beneath the heel of racism, even when they are unable to speak for themselves, as is the case with a dead body.  


When art mirrors life, repeats it, what purpose does it serve? A challenge to any artist is to be made new by their own creation such that their creations can make new those who participate in the art experience. When an artist does not offer narratives or investigations that seek to deconstruct power structures, the art risks perpetuating the very systems it seeks to critique.

One way to measure if anyone has been made new – how we can measure our own transition from sameness into difference – is to measure our level of discomfort and how we maneuver therein. I think it’s safe to say that conversations about race are most of the time uncomfortable for all parties and thus can be a transformative moment for artists who are brave enough to explore the capaciousness that is racism’s troubling history.

But discomfort can hardly be measured with ease and even more difficult is determining if how one explores their discomfort holds any validity to their artist statements.  Which brings us to Ti-Rock Moore’s artist statement for her art exhibition “Confronting Truths: Wake Up!” presented at Gallery Guichard in Chicago, IL. Here is an excerpt:

“My work is conceptual and reactive, and has been described as courageous and avante-[garde]. Honestly and frankly I explore white privilege through my acute awareness of the unearned advantage my white skin holds.”

Because we are talking about consumption of literal Black bodies, meat-making in which the media has taken part, the killing floor is both the ground beneath Brown’s body and, too, the eyes with which we, by viewing him continuously, continue to lengthen and consume his death. In his book On Black Men, David Marriott describes the conundrum of looking as eating, as gaining “access to the interior of the body”:

To incorporate, to eat, through the eyes; to want to look, and look again, in the name of appreciating and destroying, loving and hating. How do you start to tell the difference between the two?

Michael Brown can be said to have virtually died for months on end after images of his body, which was left in the middle of the road near his house for four and half hours, went viral in such a way that the television screen doubled as a canvas (as it always does), making the image a replaying artwork that despite its grotesque representation also became a form of entertainment, a source of pleasure. It is also David Marriott who says, in the same book, when describing the sensation of looking at photos of lynched figures, “The looking was the taking inside.”

What are we being trained to take inside us? Already we’re shown attempts to reconfigure the death of Michael Brown and, under the name of art, remake his death without transforming it, assuming such a transformation is possible. This uncritical recreation of Black death as spectacle requires one to have either a dearth of historical knowledge about the subject in question or the strange belief that history no longer exists. It not only gives false credence to the perpetual misrepresentation and appropriation of Black people that has happened traditionally in America’s art scene, but also to the continued ahistorical narrative that the death of Black people at the hands of white racism is new, is a form of extremism, is isolated, and is without precedent and therefore without a blueprint.

Art and its quickened ability to be shared via the internet has not dismantled history as much as it’s reinforced history’s fervor to repeat itself, and the preferential treatment of self-inflicted amnesia, or in this case a refusal to understand how art that merely echoes the past is probably going to have the same traumatic effect as the past, seems to be the current position of conceptual artists who want desperately to think about race while never making white oppression, white privilege, and their own living bodies the focal point.


Spectacle. The spectacular. Exhibition of what is remarkable, fantastic. Here I am thinking about how making Black death viral runs the risk of mythologizing it, making it unreal, which is ironic when already the murdered Black people had been dehumanized, called “demons”, relegated to their size, anger, color, all of which made it necessary to kill them.

Poet Roger Reeves presented “The Work of Poetry in the Age of Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston: Towards a Klepto_Poetics” as part of the Craft Capsules portion of Poets & Writers Live in Chicago on June 20, 2015. In it he discusses how writers must become more than “artful voyeurs.”

Just as white artists who want to create art as works of activism have the responsibility of navigating the precarious ways in which they reinforce white privilege, the same can be said for Black activists, artist and non-artist, who share videos or create work that depicts violence in action without consideration of the traumatic possibilities such an exchange may have on their viewers or readers.

It is also not beyond my attention that this very essay, which seeks to renounce the use of dead Black people as visual aid in art and media, reprints the image of Moore’s reproduction of Michael Brown’s dead body for context. Hopefully, this use of the image will not be uncoupled from this text that seeks to wholly dissolve the desire to lay claim to a kind of artistic activism that misuses spectacle in lieu of reflecting honestly about white privilege.


What are the ethics of reproducing violence? What pleasure do I the poet/fiction writer/essayist offer my reader when I render a meditation on the murder of Eric Garner or Walter Scott or Rekia Boyd? What pleasure do I offer you through the act of making a poem, something for you to find pleasure in? (Reeves)


Are we ever wholly conscious of why we share these images? Does the personal statement that “We have to know what they are doing to us,” ring true when the violent methods used against Black and Brown people have not changed for centuries? Could the sharing of these images serve more the ego and emotional decrepitude of the sharer than they do the victims of racial animosity who are pushed further and further outside of their self-embodiment in order to make room for our own need to look and keep looking?

Are we so trained such that no other form of activism and memory making can be imagined? Isn’t that the foundation of much of these concerns: the danger of lacking imagination?


The reproduction, the video images and photographs of the dead as they are being murdered, actually do nothing but perform the spectacle of going viral, uncritically trafficking and reproducing the violence that said individual or status update seeks to repudiate and denounce. (Reeves)


How can we better imagine ways to remember and honor our killed without rekindling their murders? What does it mean when to die in public, to be seen being murdered in public, is the only way any of us are allowed to be (possibly) convincing in our deaths, even to those who call themselves allies? Has Mamie Till’s powerful move to show the face of her murdered son, Emmett Till, morphed into a contemporary form of watching a lynching?

Who asks families of the dead if they have permission to replay their kin’s death to the public?


What is often jettisoned and made invisible is the individual suffering of those who actually experience and continue to experience the violence (Reeves)


In her book, The Art of Cruelty, Maggie Nelson writes, speaking about President Obama’s administration deciding on May 2009 not to release photos depicting the torture (among other things) of Afghan and Iraqi prisoners in American custody, “If you don’t want to inflame via images of the behavior, then you have to stop the behavior.”

Still, every critique is not without its counter. Reliance on the dashcam footage of Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting 16 rounds into Laquan McDonald’s body is considered a last-ditch effort to receive justice that has eluded generations who, without footage, have gone ignored by media, castigated by city officials, and even attacked by both law enforcement and white terrorists while lawfully and peacefully demanding justice. This from Chicago Tribune:

Several Chicago activist groups held a news conference Monday to criticize city officials for reacting too late, saying they have ignored community groups who have tried to spotlight the issue of police abuse of minorities.

‘Everything is being taken from us, nothing is being given to us and everyone is trying to tell us how to act and respond to that,’ said Timothy Bradford, with Black Youth Project 100. ‘There’s always focus on how black people perform and respond to being abused and exploited and oppressed politically, economically and socially. There’s very little focus and investment in addressing the root causes of everything that precedes this.’

Perhaps, the critique of focusing “on how black people perform and respond to being abused” is applicable to my own concerns with videos circulated in response to and in direct counter against the systemic ways our most oppressed are silenced. It was just recently that alleged white supremacists opened fire into a crowd of unarmed protesters in Minneapolis, resulting in no arrests. Yet peaceful protests are policed military style and offered no medical attention when force is used while the people who claim to be most afraid wreak the most havoc.

It’s understandable why video footage of Black people being killed by police forces (that historically have had little to no concern for fighting against white terrorism, therefore making them a single entity) is so frequently used to spread the word; however, whom are we trying to convince of this violence who hasn’t gotten the hint by now? And for those who don’t yet believe, is it worth attempting to prove it to them by showing our loved ones being murdered again and again?


Phillip B. Williams is a Chicago, IL native. He is the author of the book of poems Thief in the Interior (Alice James Books, 2016). He is a recipient of the 2013 Ruth Lilly Fellowship and is the poetry editor of the online journal Vinyl Poetry and Prose. Phillip is the 2015-2017 Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry at Emory University.

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