Elizabeth Alexander on the Spectacle of ‘Black Bodies in Pain’

In 1994, Elizabeth Alexander, poet, scholar, and president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation published “‘Can you be Black and Look at This?’: Reading the Rodney King Video(s).” The essay grieved the beating of Rodney King by four white Los Angeles police officers in 1991. It also grappled with the trauma that African-American viewers, in particular, experienced after repeatedly watching George Holliday’s 81-second videotape of the assault on television before the trial and during the riots that occurred after the mostly-white jury acquitted the officers.

Simultaneously appearing in the academic journal Public Culture and the catalog for Thelma Golden’s landmark exhibition, “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Alexander’s essay considered how the recording, and the ease with which it circulated, is actually part of a long history of narratives about race in the United States.

“Black bodies in pain for public consumption,” Alexander wrote, “have been an American national spectacle for centuries.” From public rapes, whippings and auction blocks, to lynchings and police beatings, African-Americans have not only been victims of racist violence, but “in one way or another, black people also have been looking,” Alexander opined, “forging a traumatized collective historical memory which is reinvoked at contemporary sites of conflict.”

A few weeks ago, I reread Alexander’s essay after a text exchange that I had with black feminist scholars, artists and activists about the harassment of Darnella Frazier, the 17-year-old girl whose phone recording of George Floyd’s killing went viral and reignited the Black Lives Matter movement. I began to think about my own reluctance to watch Frazier’s video of Floyd’s death. But mainly I worried about Frazier and how her fate as an African-American girl was forever tethered to those eight minutes and 46 seconds. She not only captured his death, but actively rejected the attempts that sought to cover up the police brutality.

In “The Trayvon Generation,” an essay published this week in The New Yorker, Alexander returned to the topic of black grief, and what it means for a new generation of African-Americans — including her two young-adult sons, Solo and Simon; the university students that she has taught in recent years; and Frazier herself — to be able to access and process these public rituals of black death on new media technologies.

“They watched these violations up close and on their cellphones, so many times over. They watched them in near-real time. They watched them crisscrossed and concentrated,” Alexander laments. “They watched them on the school bus. They watched them under the covers at night. They watched them often outside of the presence of adults who loved them and were charged with keeping them safe in body and soul.”

ImageA still from the video of Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police officers in 1991. Like the George Floyd video, it was recorded by a citizen who witnessed the assault.
Credit…George Holliday/Courtesy of KTLA Los Angeles, via Associated Press

In a recent interview, Alexander talked about the urgency and necessity of these recordings, the trauma inflicted on African-Americans who individually and collectively witness these acts, and the role of black artists to reframe our understanding and relationships to the black body under siege. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What do you see as the parallels of your two essays?

I would put it all on, sadly, a very long historical continuum. In the Rodney King essay, I looked all the way back to slave narratives of Frederick Douglass, Mary Prince, Harriet Jacobs, and their accounts of witnessing violence. They didn’t have the technology of the videotape, but they did see public black beatings and murders that were meant to serve as object lessons. The punishment of slave X showed the slaves that if they got out of line, it’s you next. In the early part of the 20th century, there were lynching parties, lynching postcards, bringing children to lynchings, bringing picnics to lynchings, public lynchings that were photographed, bodies dragged through the center of town so that everyone would see. Again, object lessons.

Then, of course, was the murder of Emmett Till. After his body was beaten, shot, weighed down with an anvil, sunken in the river and brought back up, it was his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, who said, I will show the world what they did to my child. That’s where you have a very fascinating switch. Because actually that body would not have been seen, but it was his mother who said, “Everybody needed to know.” She took it out of Mississippi to Chicago and people lined up for days to not only pay their respects, but to bear witness.

There was also the very brilliant use of black technology in which Jet magazine published the photograph, not of a closed casket but of his ruined, bloated body. There’s a whole literature of black, young people in 1955, who saw that picture and said: Something was going on. Everybody was talking about what was in Jet. And how that was such a powerful object lesson in their own vulnerability, how terrifying that was.

What about the differences now? How has technology made such devastating images even more ubiquitous?

What I was interested in “The Trayvon Generation” is how our young people are watching this violation over and over again on their phones. So, at 17, Darnella Frazier can change the world. She was standing at close range not only to a murder in progress, but to four policemen. I can’t imagine that proximity, and she keeps filming. A question and a concern that we must ask is, “Who has this child?”

I say that rhetorically, because this is not about someone having a family. This is about a larger community saying we have to put our arms around this child who did something unbelievably brave, who put herself at risk to do something that would result, we hope, in justice, but that also could not save that man’s life. And it is so extraordinary how she went back to the scene the next day and had the language to say, “It is so traumatizing.” She didn’t say, “I’m so traumatized,” because it was what she went through. But also she is a proxy for our young people.

Credit…Chicago Sun-Times, via Associated Press Photo

Is there a difference between being a spectator of these deaths versus being a witness?

That just gets to the question of who’s watching, and how does it affect them. Going back to Frederick Douglass, when he talks about witnessing his Aunt Hester being beaten, he has a completely empathetic experience with that because he knows that it could have been him, but also that he can’t help her and stop the slave master who is beating her. And I think in some horrible way, we have become used to seeing the violation of black people.

With George Floyd’s murder, it was played on television 5,000 times. So back to the question of who’s watching, what happens when black people watch? To inform is one thing, to bear witness is another thing. But to just roll the video without a moment that says a life was taken here, a person was dehumanized here in the way that black people have been dehumanized throughout our history? Seeing is important, and helps you understand. But I think the repetition of that image without thought to who’s watching it and how it affects them is something that we could work on a little bit.

Some of these protests are now majority white. Is there a new moment of racial identification that didn’t happen with Rodney King?

I think all roads lead to the effects of black studies. We have 50 years of black studies, ethnic studies, L.G.B.T. studies, women’s studies, and integration in higher education in larger numbers. And we’ve done the hard work of taking people through black history via the culture. So I know that [academics] have sent a lot of white students into the world with a very powerful consciousness. And then if you also think about a generation growing up only seeing the Obama presidency, and by that, I also mean the pictures, and visual symbolism of that man as a leader and that family and those daughters as American daughters for eight years as normative and as beautiful.

In both essays, why do you focus on black artists and how they mourn black death and memorialize black life?

Because artists can show you anything. Artists can imagine anything. Artists can dream another world. Artists can write a different ending. In Pat Ward Williams’s [1986] collage “Accused/Blowtorch/Padlock” that I wrote about, she asked, “Can you be black and look at this?” She took a Life magazine photograph of a person who has been lynched and tied to a tree. And she wrote on it, “Who was the photographer? Who took this picture? Did you try to stop it?” In her art, she asked, not just how did this happen, but what did it mean for a white person to watch it, and record it, and not try to be helpful?

Alongside #BlackLivesMatter, we also have #AllBlackLivesMatter? How does that open up our understanding of what it means to be black and vulnerable today?

It is intense to still, now, decades later, be saying that the vulnerability and possibility of violence is one of the things that connects us. And though it’s not just the boys, it’s not just the men, but I think that we can’t jump off that and say that there’s not a particular narrative, and a particular vulnerability, and a particular history of stories, and a specific danger that is gendered. But I have found the conversations that we are having with each other, the march at the Brooklyn Museum [the “Brooklyn Liberation” march also known as an “Action for Trans Black Lives”], of 15,000 people, masked and social distancing, is very important, and very powerful.

It’s like that Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “I Am Black/Kojo” in her book “Children Coming Home” where she says, “Black is an open umbrella. I am Black, and a Black forever.”

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