Living With Death: Black American Trauma in the Age of the Spectacular

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On September 15, 1955, Jet, a national Black magazine, printed the image of Emmitt Till’s battered, disfigured corpse on its cover. Images such as Emmitt Till’s corpse are visual testimonies of Black pain, wounding and death. This imagery has been used for racial control and subjugation since the era of lynching photography in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, Black pain, wounding and death imagery has also been used for Black liberation purposes, such as the photos and film of Black citizens in Birmingham being attacked by police dogs and sprayed with high-pressure fire hoses. These images helped spur anti-segregation and the voting rights activism in the Black American civil rights movement of the mid 20th century.

Contemporary videos capturing U.S. police officers killing Black Americans have forced many to acknowledge the disproportionate numbers of Black Americans targeted by state violence. These videos have sparked recent civil rights protests in cities across the nation, including Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland, and have galvanized online social movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName, which illuminates Black women’s experiences of police violence.

Living With Death: Black American Trauma in the Age of the Spectacular asks: What does it mean to be Black and to be the subject, witness and consumer of Black pain, wounding and death imagery? What impact do these images have on Black collective identity formation and Black cultural production? Using embodied image schema analysis, discussion group data, in-depth interviews, textual analysis, and auto-ethnography, this project examines viral videos of Black pain, wounding, and death and Black Cultural Workers’ (BCW) responses to these visual texts. An afro-futurist examination, this project grapples with the concept of Black life in response to the anti-blackness that has structured the world (Wilderson 2010) since the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, framing Black life as existing in/and out of time. By unpacking the role of spectacle, surveillance, and consumption on Black Americans’ witnessing practices, identity, and cultural production, Living With Death: Black American Trauma in the Age of the Spectacular illustrates the ways Black people navigate anti-Blackness to live fully and vibrantly under the specter of death.