On Seeing Blackness

How do you look at images of anti-black violence without reproducing that violence in perpetuity?

I entered into the knowledge of my own vulnerability via two photographs, images that jostled for the public’s attention in 1955 and still jostle in my mind: an undated photo of Emmett Till as he was in life, with light reflecting off his face so that he looks radiant, sculpted out of clay; and Jet magazine’s 1955 lynch image of Emmett Till’s mutilated corpse, his radiant face turned into a ruin, a warning, a harbinger.

I was seven, maybe eight, when my parents brought home a VHS box set of Eyes on the Prize, the documentary epic of the Civil Rights Movement. As my family had done for so many similar screenings, we gathered before our television and my father loaded the first cassette. The screen transmuted from a serene blue into an uneasy black across which undulating grey lines streaked, and again into a disarticulated field of grey. These mutations kept up their procession a while longer before black faces materialized. These faces parted lips to sing, watched impassively, and winced as they prepared to receive blows. They scowled while recounting daily indignities, and stared exhaustedly into the middle distance. They gazed calmly upon horrors, like Till’s face, that should have made them recoil the way I did.

To accept Mamie Till’s demand that her nation really look at racism’s fruits also meant accepting my diminished status in American society

The impulse that made me avert my gaze from Till’s ruined face was about more than the terror of seeing another black boy whose body had been treated so barbarously, transformed so completely. I felt suddenly and viscerally porous, open to the world in a manner that frightened me. That openness had everything to do with a tension between Mamie Till’s dignified act of defiance in exposing her son’s corpse, and the revelation of black disposability — that is to say, my own disposability — that lurked behind her public gesture. To accept Mamie Till’s demand that her nation really look at racism’s fruits also meant accepting my diminished status in American society. I didn’t understand how circulating such images constituted a form of resistance.

In “Can You Be Black and Look at This?” Elizabeth Alexander cites the Jet photograph as part of a lineage of images that function as versions of Frederick Douglass’ “blood-stained gate”: acts of violence and witnessing that initiate black people into knowledge of their bodies’ vulnerability under a white supremacist racial order. These same images can also initiate us into a black community characterized by creative acts of defiance — such as Mamie Till’s gesture — that create “counter-memories,” or correctives to traumatic histories. As Alexander points out, however, a fundamental antinomy will always linger between these two conceptions of lynching photography, a tension that we might summarize in a single question — can you look at these images and honor black life?

That question sits at the heart of a long running discourse on images of anti-black violence and their functions, one that has accumulated renewed urgency in the last decade. Contemporary technology — most notably the ubiquity of cellphones and access to social media — have increased and accelerated the increased circulation of police shooting footage. This circulation has precipitated a new consciousness of the criminal justice system’s origins in white supremacy, but even as outrage over police shooting footage helped propel Black Lives Matter to greater visibility, disagreement over whether or not watching images of black men and women’s deaths is ethical, or even efficacious, has been percolating at least since the death of Walter Scott in South Carolina.

While some have hailed the effect of bystander videos as a potential check on police misconduct, others have suggested that American society’s relationship to these images is more complex. For example, writing in The New Republic in 2015, Jamil Smith argued that America’s fascination with these images was turning black death into a spectacle Americans consume as easily as they do reality television. “Unfortunately,” he wrote, “the increased visibility of trauma and death at the hands of cops isn’t doing as much as it should be. The legacy of increased exposure to black death has merely been the deadening of our collective senses.”

The force of history bolsters Smith’s anxiety over how these images train us to regard anti-black violence. Understanding his perspective requires that we think about contemporary police shooting videos in the context of lynching, whose history is entwined with the advent of photographic technology. Photography enabled the circulation of images of black death, and historically this circulation has helped ensure white supremacy’s stability. Images of destroyed and abject black bodies became instantiations of black people’s inferiority, and warning signs to those who would transgress the racial order of things.

Smith’s comparison of police shooting footage to reality television is devastatingly apt. After all, before civil rights activists used lynching photographs as anti-lynching propaganda tools, such killings were regularly staged for popular consumption. Extralegal executions were often conducted in public, and crowds gathered to gawk at hangings, shootings, beatings, and burnings. Afterward, spectators would swarm the victims’ corpses to take pieces of their clothing — and even their ruined bodies — as gruesome souvenirs. Black death was quite literally a spectacle for these people, one that represented and reinforced their power over black life.

I couldn’t help but feel that technology had circled back to some of its earliest purposes: broadcasting anti-black violence as widely as possible, as both entertainment and warning

The story of photography as a practice and a consumer technology in early 20th-century America is coextensive with the spectacle of lynching. As historian Leigh Raiford points out in Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare, the public’s taste for spectacles of black death created a market demand for lynching photographs as popular commodities that circulated in various media, from trading cards to stereographs. People purchased these images as a way to participate in a form of entertainment and white identity formation that would otherwise have been unavailable to them. The circulation of such images essentially meant the circulation and reproduction of white supremacy.

The story of Henry Smith is instructive here. Smith was a black man suspected of murdering three-year-old Myrtle Vance in Paris, Texas, in February 1893. Vance was white, and her death set in motion white residents’ ritualistic conception of American race and gender politics. Smith became a sacrifice to ensure the sanctity of white womanhood and the invulnerability of white patriarchy. He was paraded about the streets and eventually burned alive before a mob. His murder was particularly shocking in its barbarity, and made headlines across the nation as the press whipped itself into a frenzy alternately condemning and justifying the event. As a result, his death was reproduced endlessly. No matter the reason for his corpse’s display, the effect was the same every time: whether Smith was a victim of white racism or a criminal threatening civilization, his body became a screen upon which the nation projected the drama of American race relations.

As literary critic Jacqueline Goldsby narrates in A Spectacular Secret, Smith’s status as a screen eventually became all too literal. Images of his death were so popular that they coincided with the development of a primitive version of video footage. In a nauseating turn, photographers preserved the event via a ghastly technology: photographs of Smith’s lynching, which had been documented from start to finish, were arranged in chronological order and paired with gramophone recordings from the scene. Spectators could wear earpieces that cast them more fully into the scene of Smith’s death, and in cities as far afield as Seattle, crowds gathered to consume this barbaric event.

Smith’s lynching echoed in my mind when I watched the footage of Philando Castile’s murder at the hands of Officer Jeronimo Yanez, in no small part because Castile’s death felt like a traumatic repetition of history. The shooting’s public nature — Diamond Reynolds live streamed the killing to thousands of spectators via Facebook Live — echoed the hideousness of Smith’s unending lynching. What’s more, Reynolds’ flat affect — she repeatedly responds to Yanez’s panicked orders with eerily automatic variations on “Yes, sir” — struck me as a reminder not only of the trauma such violence inflicts upon black people, but the way that its reproduction and circulation broadens its reach in order to traumatize entire populations. Though the footage served as a rallying cry to renewed struggle against police brutality, I couldn’t help but feel that technology had circled back around to some of its earliest purposes: broadcasting anti-black violence as widely as possible, as both entertainment and warning. It was difficult for me to conceive of a use for these images that didn’t re-instantiate the spectacle of anti-black violence and empty black bodies of subjectivity.

The entwined histories of photography and lynching demand that we consider how looking at and reproducing images of racist violence might conjure up ghosts of a past that still haunts our contemporary moment. This past circumscribes every attempt to expose anti-blackness via visual evidence, and invites a few questions: How do you “expose” a history that the nation has never been shy about exhibiting in the first place? More crucially, how do you look at these images without reproducing these deaths in perpetuity, thus re-enacting violence and extending white supremacy’s reach into our collective psyche?

Despite the dangers inherent in putting damaged black bodies on display, black thinkers and artists have returned to such images compulsively. This abiding return to lynching photography and its contemporary successor, the police shooting video, seems intent on answering my earlier question: Can we look at these images and simultaneously honor black life? Jamil Smith’s language echoes for me. The increased visibility of trauma and death … isn’t doing as much as it could be. Even as Smith condemns the way in which these images’ circulation might normalize black death, he holds out hope that there is something more these images could be doing. It’s as if Smith is straining to locate a third function that these images might perform, one that doesn’t reduce black bodies to objects for lurid display.

Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, currently on exhibit in New York as part of the Whitney Museum’s biennial, triggered a conflict over the history that it simultaneously engages and is circumscribed by, and raised a series of knotty questions: Is it right to circulate depictions of anti-black violence? If so, who has the right to represent that violence?

The black British artist and writer Hannah Black had a few hypotheses in mind. In an open letter to the Whitney that appeared on the popular “Black Contemporary Art” Tumblr, she accused Schutz of interloping in a conversation to which she was not invited, and appropriating black racial pain as raw material for an ill-guided exploration of white shame. For Black, Schutz’s painting was insensitive not only to anti-black violence’s foundational role in securing white supremacy. It was also blind to and complicit in the history of lynching photography. But while conversation about Schutz’s painting hinged on matters of racial proprietorship — a strange approach to an image that Mamie Till always intended to galvanize national rather than racial soul searching — the reaction that Open Casket prompted among black artists and activists is more interesting for what it says about a certain tradition of black self-representation, and the seminal role that lynching photography plays in that tradition.

It’s not coincidental that Hannah Black’s letter first appeared on Black Contemporary Art, a blog that the writer and curator Kimberly Drew founded in 2011. The blog is striking in the sheer range of representations that it assembles under the rubric of “black.” From photography of contemporary black culture that evokes social realist portraiture, to paintings that recall Jacob Lawrence’s Cubist experiments, to GIFS culled from music videos, the blog collects so many varied genres and styles that one can only describe its ethos as one of indiscriminate joyfulness in blackness’ capacity for shape shifting. Rather than delineating particular schools or policing blackness’ boundaries, the blog settles into the incessant and recursive proliferation that Tumblr enables. If lynching photography fixes the black body to a few predetermined meanings, or turns it into a screen onto which we project our fears, Black Contemporary Art insists upon possibility.

If lynching photography fixes the black body to a few predetermined meanings, or turns it into a screen onto which we project our fears, “Black Contemporary Art” insists upon possibility

It’s a mistake to think that such logic inheres solely in social media, though. I think we find its earliest instantiation in black people’s re-appropriation of lynching photography, especially in the image of Emmett Till’s brutalized face. When Mamie Till decided to display her son’s corpse for the world to see, the display itself was not a revolutionary gesture in the history of American race relations. Though historians credit the photograph of Emmett Till’s mangled face with precipitating a new national attitude that facilitated the Civil Rights Movement’s success, the photograph’s existence did little to upend white Americans’ relationship to images of destroyed black bodies. As Henry Smith’s fate teaches us, such technology owed its prevalence in part to its promotion of anti-black violence. The sense of awed reverence that people reserve for Mamie Till’s gesture, and the pride of place that history has bestowed on it — we think of Emmett’s funeral as a genesis moment for the Civil Rights Movement — lies in something other than the technology through which that image was circulated, or the sheer fact of its display.

Mamie Till knew how to use technology. More specifically, she knew that photography could reconfigure how we see black people, rather than simply reproduce oppression. She understood that photographic technology was often a tool of representation through which white supremacy deposited meaning and terror into black bodies; she also understood that the same technology could help subvert those meanings and combat that terror. Her gesture is an origin story for an entire tradition of contemporary black visual culture that disrupts the visual codes governing black life. She presented us with the possibility that a technology previously complicit in constricting black life’s range of possibilities might become a space for artful self-fashioning.

In Eyes on the Prize, the camera pulls back to reveal the entirety of Emmett Till’s casket, and you realize that the undated photo of his face as it was in life hangs just above his corpse. You see hundreds of people filing past the corpse, circulating in the church, crying and looking on stoically and embracing one another. This dense proximity — Till’s corpse, the counter-image, the live bodies arrived to mourn lost life — generates a friction between white supremacy’s enforced violence and the sociality it unsuccessfully seeks to stamp out. In displaying her son’s body, Mamie Till turned the Roberts Temple Church into a theater, a space in which black people could come together to reassert and honor the value of black life rather than simply witness death. It’s in this friction that we find Mamie Till staking out new ground, a space wherein blackness cannot be reduced to her son’s shattered body.

Blackness is that friction, the tireless impulse towards constantly multiplying kinds of representation, and the indefatigable assertion of the right to self-representation in oppression’s shadow. As art historian Darby English argues in How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness, this kind of visual strategy reformulates blackness as a set of social relations rather than something that inheres in the black body. It’s a capacious, improvisatory sociality that is always “falling outside and between bodies and peoples and culture … [something] commingled with its contraries, contradictorily populated, the yield of a certain theatricalization.”

In this sense, Emmett Till’s funeral was a precursor to digital spaces like Black Contemporary Art. Similarly, these digital spaces want to multiply the images by which we accommodate ourselves with the restless, shape-shifting sociality we know by shorthand as “blackness.” They are theaters in which we gather to dramatize and celebrate how endlessly generative this thing we call black is.

But Mamie Till’s gesture has something else to tell us. There is no way to attenuate accumulated history of the violence that always circumscribes these images and the technology that produces them. And we shouldn’t desire such a thing; without that history, the centrifugal force of blackness would never have come into existence. In returning to such images, we recuperate them, transforming them into stages upon which we perform our own resilience. And so when I think back to the night when I first saw footage of Emmett Till’s funeral, I now recognize it as an initiation into a way of looking at the world, one that assembles commingled tragedies and triumphs into an assertion of my own humanity, and contextualizes the spectacle of black death as merely one of blackness’ iterations.

Ismail Muhammad is a staff writer for the Millions and a contributing editor at ZYZZYVA. His nonfiction and criticism have appeared in Slate, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Catapult, and other venues. He’s currently based in Oakland, where he’s working on a novel and a PhD in American literature at UC Berkeley.