We are no good to the dead, and yet we believe the grieving owe us their tears
We are complicit in the ways we’ve allowed this world to warp our spirits so thoroughly that we invade the privacy of our dead.
In my family, we have a tradition of cooking and sitting with the grieving, especially when they have no words. Especially when the tears have been ripped out and the well to produce more has disappeared. We honor the lives of the folks who’ve been lost, beaten, and violently shredded from this world by sitting and taking care of each other.
But lately, the ways we grieve seem overridden with ownership, policing, and laying claim. We have gotten away from gifting the grieving privacy, of respecting a life who has passed on, regardless of the circumstances of their death. And though I think this is an extension of the violent carcerality whiteness has imposed upon us, I can’t quite find the words or the reasons why we are doing this to each other.
Even before the coronavirus hit and forced many of us to grieve in isolation, things have felt off. I’m at a point now where I oscillate between grief and being almost griefless, between feeling everything at once and accepting the creep of dejection and cynicism…
Black folks have had to simultaneously push down our grief lest it be seen as an all consuming weakness, while also being forced to arm ourselves with the perception of grieflessness as a means of protection. Still, we are made to display our grief by making it hollow and thus, intelligible to various audiences but especially to those that are rich, white, and male.
For some of us, grief has become a performance, a career starter, an everyday, unholy thing. The demands we place on the grieving scare me. The realities of bodies being left for hours, sometimes days, in streets, fields, makeshift ditches, driveways, corner store floors, cars, couches, abandoned homes, fire escapes, front porches, our mothers’ laps. The expectations and violences we push onto the already dead keep me up at night. It is all too much.
We are no good to the dead and dying. We are not good at death. Or grief. But we are especially complicit in the ways we’ve allowed this world to warp our spirits to the extent that we invade the privacy of our dead, that we turn them into props and photo ops, that we stop defending them.
And this has to change. Now.
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Many of us have written and talked about the spectacle of Black death, the attraction of American policing and the insistence that our murders be necessitated in the name of public safety. And yet, those who are gutted and grieving are often either left out of the conversation or expected to perform their grief in accessible ways.
The first post I saw with a caption that read, “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” was of a very light skinned Black woman in a hammock smiling as Shaun King’s book lay in her lap. And I thought, this is a specifically violent iteration of how consumptive, colorist and self centered light skinned and non-Black people can be. But then I saw hordes of photos and hashtags with the same content being shared and a chill ran through me. That chill quickly turned into anger due to the insensitive, exploitative, and normalized practice of continuing to extract the life (and death) out of someone who has been murdered by the state.
Some will argue that posting photos with those hashtags/ phrases provide visibility and awareness, and I’m not going to spend time refuting that because honestly, I don’t believe it. We owe the dead more than that argument. We owe them more than romanticizing the ways they fought (or did not fight) for their lives. We owe them more than celebrating the fact that no one knew they were in pain.
Words like visibility, representation, awareness, and reach read like those sad diversity and inclusion brochures that have people who kind of look like you but you know they have never set foot in the advertised place. Or those panels on Blackness folks get invited to be on only to belatedly realize that the entire room is filled with non-Black people who are believed to be experts on your experience.
Black bodies are palatable commodities, especially when they are dead, even in the eyes of other Black folks. Instead of engaging with how we might honor and/ or defend our dead, we play into this world’s violence by asking, what can I extract from this dead, Black life? We may not be aware of it, and I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to those for whom that is true.
Hashtags, memeification, and insincere requests for justice are often about and in service of the living. We use the dead as props and opportunities to quell our consciences.
Police, white vigilantes, and governments across the globe are rewarded for their anti-Blackness and our bleeding bodies become souvenirs. They have said over and over and over again in various ways that it will never be about the dead. And we are following suit. That is what scares me.
It isn’t just the ways we’ve celebritized or memeified our dead, however. The expectation for performance is never-ending, regardless of your class status and it is even crueler when you aren’t well known to those outside of your community.
Black trans women across the country have been killed at alarming rates and yet, because they aren’t deemed worthy of protection from jump, their lives are used as backdrops for larger stories. They are also often blamed for their deaths even as their murders become rallying calls towards a distance of folks who would not protect them while they were living.
I retain that we do not care about the dead. I want to be proven wrong. I want to witness practices that call for justice, remembrance and accountability in ways that center the family and communities most impacted by that grief. I want to know what it’s like to open up space for them to determine what we do next. For them to share exactly what they think, what they want.
I pray we get away from the perpetual loop of believing we know what is best, what is right, what most activates. People do not owe you their grief.
When Nia Wilson was killed by a white man at a bart station platform five minutes from my home, news outlets stole photos from her social media accounts and shared them in their “coverage” of the investigation. One outlet shared a photo of Nia holding a phone case in the shape of a gun and presented it as a firearm, then apologized. The damage had already been done. Community members held a vigil outside of the BART station, and that too, was destroyed.
Black folks are made into thugs in their lives and especially in their deaths. This is not new. These images and revisions are purposeful attempts at justifying murder. I want to be clear that I do not expect news outlets, police, government officials, or white vigilantes to honor our lives or our deaths. I expect us to.
When a helicopter crashed and nine individuals, including Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna died, TMZ was the first news outlet to report their deaths. They did so before the families of the deceased were notified. When Naya Rivera went missing, people recorded her friends and family grieving, ultimately selling the footage to “news outlets”. When news of Chadwick Boseman’s death hit the media, he was praised for his fight and endurance in his battle with cancer. But months before his death, Boseman was made fun of for his weight loss and appearance.
Celebrating the fact that “no one knew” of his illness reinforces the idea that celebrity lives are always up for public consumption and that we should have known that we are/were somehow owed or entitled to information about his body and health. It ignores or fails to consider the fact that the ones he wanted to know did know. The rhetoric strengthens ableism by romanticizing the concept of fighting in silence, not daring to speak of your disability or illness.
Lupita Nyong’o, one of Boseman’s co-stars and friends has not released a public statement. Her posts have been inundated with demands for answers about how many days it will take her to acknowledge and publicly grieve his death. Ultimately she, just like Boseman, is expected to perform life, death and everywhere in between.
We do not care about the dead, they have become capital, opportunities, vessels to measure our activism and reach. And what about their families? What about those who cooked their favorite foods? Who know about all the stages of their lives, not just the versions we think will politicize folks? What about the folks who would give anything, anything to have them back?
Black lives are already represented as non-human, animalistic, threatening, and perpetually out of place. It is not normal for us to consume each other. It is cruel to further the dehumanization of Blackness by shrinking dead Black bodies into boxes that only benefit the living. This does nothing for the dead and dealing in death will cost us.
I want to know:
What were our dead’s favorite foods?
What scents did they like the most?
What would they be doing today?
How might we respect the privacy of those who are grieving?
May those who don’t know learn. May those who do their best to dishonor our dead remain haunted. May their living never feel complete.
TLDR: Take Breonna Taylor’s name off of your selfie captions.