One night when I was about 6, I couldn’t sleep. My older sister and I shared a room. My bed was next to the wall with the windows and something told to look out the window. That night, I watched three men rob and murder a man directly in front of our building.
There were five gunshots. Petrified and paralyzed, I didn’t scream or jump. I just watched as the man’s body was pierced with bullets. The blood poured out of him as hit the ground. The shots woke my sister and parents. I pretended they had jolted me awake as well. I’ve never told my mother or sister what I witnessed that night. In fact, I’ve only told two of my closest friends.
Thankfully, I never witnessed another murder, but I saw a half dozen more dead bodies. A dead Black body.
I lived in the projects for the first 12 years of my life, most of that during the height of the crack epidemic. Scorched in my retina are the images of dead bloodied bodies in the grass, on the sidewalk and in the street. The police never considered shielding Black communities, even innocent children, from the horror of Black death exhibited, demonstrated and memorialized by mutilated, bullet-riddled Black bodies.
I suppose one of the most covert yet essential ways in which racism functions is to normalize our suffering and remind us that our deaths are as meaningless as our lives. What more powerful way to impress this lesson on the most irrefutable subjects of this deadly 400-year-experiment than to force us to watch as rigor mortis sets in Black bodies and blood drys on cement?
But now, in the age where a camera is always in arm’s reach, we don’t have to wait for the next body to drop in the poorest, most crime-ridden of our communities to convene at the site of the tragedy and watch up close. Now, we can open our laptops or unlock our phones to view Black death. This weekend, LA rapper Nipsey Hussle became the latest cast member in the saga.
The rapper was gunned down outside his Los Angeles store Sunday afternoon. Before an announcement that he had succumbed to his injuries, a video began to circulate online of paramedics attending to an unresponsive Nipsey. I watched the video because a follower deciding to post it in the comments section of a post I made about him without a trigger warning and FB auto-played the triggering video.
What does it say that even in the greatest times of tragedy, our first instinct is not to mourn or stand solemn but to record and upload footage of a person dying? How are we served by watching EMTs try to revive this man? Why have we become so obsessed with the fleeting fame of social media that trauma does not trigger our sympathy or tears but urges us to pull out our phone and permanently preserve the monstrous memory of a man’s life slipping away?
A simple google search using the appropriate keywords will bring up pictures of Mike Brown’s dead, bloody body baking in the August sun. Another search will yield clear, nauseating photos of Philando Castille’s lifeless body in the passenger of a car, and if you’re feeling especially apathetic, the full video of his murder is readily accessible online, having been catalogued for no other reason than to remind Black people that we are never more than a traffic stop away from death. And now, a scroll on Twitter or IG may offer video of Nipsey’s Hussle’s last moments.
The problem with the kind of racist and intracommunal violence we suffer is not one of disbelief. Without pictures or video of Black people being murdered or dead Black bodies, the accounts are no less believable. The internet’s shrine to violent Black death is not necessary to legitimize our suffering. We know the results of this system’s genocidal plan of action.
The singular impetus for capturing and releasing these images into the world forever is to ensure that all people are desensitized to Black death and trauma. Now these images are at the fingertips of most of the world to make certain that at all times, it is clear that Black people, bodies and life are so worthless, such fit recipients of painful, violent expiration, such appropriate subjects for dehumanization, degradation and humiliation that us meeting our ultimate demise is worthy click bait. We are not even allowed the respect in death.
And too often the cameramen and directors behind this trauma porn are our own. We are the ones posting this nightmarish media to our profiles without even enough regard to post a trigger warning. It is Black people assaulting the psyches and morale of other Black people with visible impressions of slaughter.
So if we cannot even be gentle with and mindful of our own emotional health, enough so that even if we do not abandon the urge to record these moments, we think enough of one another not to post, share and promote them, then it is certain that the task of convincing not just everyone else but also Black people that neither our lives nor our deaths matter is complete.