Why Do We Look? On Gazing at Dead Black Bodies

Here we are again, another black man murdered by another white police officer. There’s (graphic) video at the very top of the New York Times digital front page. Amidst anger and heartbreak over Walter Scott’s death, an urgent question emerges: How and why do we look at its visual representation?

For those of us who teach nineteenth-century American literature, culture, and race, how to look at images of racial violence isn’t just a question that rises and falls with the news cycle: it’s a horribly ever-present ethical charge. Some thoughts, then, about how my students and I struggle to look together.

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“Where are they? A barbecue, it looks like.”

“I think it’s a family reunion.”

“Wait, are those feet?”

Beneath the feet that reach towards the distant ground, he smiles. His smile is big and proud—not quite like the woman next to him whose smile seems to limp across her face. I suspect these two smartly dressed young folks are on a date and wonder if it’s their first. Will they grab something to eat after they leave here? Catch a movie? The photograph does not give up what it knows. But what I know is that they have ended up here, smiling, beneath these feet that seem prepared to walk up to yonder. And I have ended up here too. The unnamed man’s smile welcomes me into the crowd even though I am just a curious, anachronistic spectator whose Google search terms—“lynching,” “terror lynching,” or “American lynching”—led her here. Yet, here I stand, a voyeur and interloper, and a bit to my dismay, as part of this mob.

I bring my students with me—by way of 21st century technologies—and together, we create a kind of new audience for this decidedly American way of violence. Students use silence to speak their discomfort while I ask questions to avoid mine. The collective discomfort confesses a horror at the sight of this seemingly amicable crowd and the dead men above it. It admits that we do not actually know how to read this scene—not at first. Where bodies hang on projection screens there are no geographies, no perpetrators and only a vague sense of what’s happened. A lynching happened. Unnamed bodies are hanged sometime and somewhere in history. How they got there—well, no one bothers to speak about the crowd except to say,

“This is sick.”

Everyone knows better than to ask who did this—even the NY Times. To ask and to wonder who stands with us in this crowd would invite disruptive answers and stories that would have us bear witness to ourselves and to the histories that make possible the present—even in our “diverse,” “post-racial,” and twenty-first century classroom. Despite the anxieties that silence my students, here we stand in a field in the middle of time, next to a man who smiles at us.

I tell them to look towards the smiling man and his almost smiling friend. I tell them to look because I have learned that history doesn’t just bury the dead and with it, the stories that we would rather not recollect. History leaves its secrets to seek publicity, tribute, and acknowledgement. I ask them to see the couple’s interlocked fingers, her fancy dress, and his starched shirt. I ask if these two look like they are on a date. They grunt their disgust. Eyes roll, and silence gives way to murmurs and fragmented speech. An “ew” here or a trailing “why would…” over there. Because their words have failed them, I know what to expect next and it happens. “It’s racist.” I don’t know who says it first. Racist. It is a go-to word when all else fails. Call it “racist” and then we can move on, right? Call it “racist” and then we can shake our heads together at the foolishness of those folks “back-in-the-day” who liked to wear hooded satin and spray children with water hoses or we can laugh at the idiocy of those who don’t fully understand American progress. Call it “racist” and we can celebrate the kind of progress that assumes racism died when the old people did in the 20th century and of course, the day of President Obama’s 2008 election.

But, I find none of this works to ease what we see in lynching pics—someone’s grandfather, grandmother, aunt or uncle, a cousin maybe—because every postcard and each photograph makes real the very human desire to document ourselves and our triumphs. There’s no way to ease what we see because it reminds us of the kinds of violent spectacle that confront us at present; each photo remnant or smiling face anticipates a New York Times headline with video, “South Carolina Officer Gets Charge in Man’s Murder” or today’s Instagram, Vine, Snapchat, Twitter, etc.

University of Oklahoma frat boys sing good ole boy lynching songs that not only confess to racism but also suggest just who kills, spectates, and stands smiling at the lynching. Their song calls us into the mob in the same way that repeatedly watching YouTube videos of police beating on or killing unsuspecting black women or men does. How many times have we watched Walter L. Scott, Eric Garner or Tamir Rice die? And to what end?

What do we get? I have learned from my students and this lynching pic that what we seek in these iterations is the safety of community. We get to participate in a community that has the privilege of watching, looking, and most importantly living. To watch—from the position of the crowd, the mob, or the digitized spaces of social media—is to know that this imagined community is still safe from those deemed expendable, the “enemy,” or the “other.” When the community is ours to claim, we don’t have to worry about our fear of missing out and instead, submit to our desire for inclusion. We are rightly included because we are still here, watching, looking, and staring at those who have passed on.

–Tara Bynum: Of Baltimore and rowhomes

Image credit: Norman Lewis, Magenta Haze, 1947, oil on canvas