When Emmett Till’s 14-year-old body was exhumed from the Tallahatchie River and laid to rest, his mother insisted on an open-casket funeral. It was to confront America with the brutality of its people, to show the world racism in its grievous, sickening, mutilated reality.
Death is a ruthless truth to constantly face, and we try to drape its ugliness and destruction in flowers, flags, framed photos- it may not really work, but it gives things a face of beauty, at least. In the violent wake or cause of death, we always hope for peace and meaning in remembrance. The videoed murder of George Floyd reminds us that black people have long been deprived of humanity in life and in death. It seems unfair that without choice or agency, his memory has been prised into an open casket, even by people whose very point is to remember his personhood. To see an image of a man crushing another’s neck is distressing, to see the expression on the face of an innocent man being murdered is something that would make you sick- yet they’re inescapable, because black degradation is something that has been firmly rooted into our visual landscape.
For whatever reason it may be, the threshold for stomaching depictions of black suffering is low. Primetime TV shows are interspersed with charity ads of African babies with bloated bellies and skinny fingers; film after film depicts the rape and torture of American slavery; an unnecessary ‘n*gger’ is forever waiting to erupt from any white Tarantino character’s lips- black degradation is in the media something to be lamented, but nevertheless gawked at. Why is there such an appetite for this? Is it virtue porn for non-black moderates? Isn’t there something quite paradoxical about watching someone you really do believe is a human being, being treated like an animal? It is even more disturbing to think that images of the abused black body have within social media become almost a social currency, for virtue signalling and proving the extent of one’s outrage.
We could track media saturation with normalised images of the brutalised black body to lingering colonial narratives of black biological sturdiness, sensationalism marketed to the desensitised, a subconsciously perceived deficiency in humanity- a harder question to ask would be to wonder what necessitates it. It’s the sad reality that many people think that racism is now mostly an obsolete tendency rather than an institutional truth- maybe it’s these vicious abuses of human rights, that in stomach turning audio-visual form, finally mobilise people to action and introspection.
These are hard seas to navigate- in George Floyd’s case, without the video recording we wouldn’t be seeing these brilliant fires of justice burning across America. And, I guess, it’s contributed to the latest in a long, long series of wake-up calls (which have so far resulted in white society falling back to sleep every time). Now more than ever, though, we should be mindful and questioning of the use of these images. In the case of George Floyd, we should especially ask how black people would feel seeing a picture like that; without that veil of numbness, images of suffering understandably hit harder when time and time again, it is people who look like you or your family. We should ask why we need to see the bloody, suffocating depths of racist brutality to believe it.
It is certainly important not to forget the humanity of the lives lost in the darkness of those depths. Activism is brilliant, but it is nothing without compassion. I hope for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and the countless other black lives taken by cruelty and racism, that with their justice, we also bring them their flowers.