About two years ago, I made a conscious decision to look away.
The 2019 video of Andrew Johnson, the 16-year-old Black wrestler who was forced to cut his locks, broke me. I watched as the white female trainer took blunt scissors to Johnson’s locks and cut them off, one by one, sometimes two or three at a time. With each clip, Johnson’s shoulders slumped deeper into his body. Although he would go on to win the match, in that moment, he looked defeated. The humiliation was too great. My heart broke. I am still mending my broken heart.
The videos of Black trauma, humiliation and death have not stopped. Now that former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has been convicted of all charges in George Floyd’s death, it’s time to stop replaying the video of the killing.
Like many others, I mourn the loss of Floyd’s life, which was taken as Chauvin pinned him to the ground with his knee for more than nine minutes. Claudia Rankine writes that “the condition of Black life is one of mourning.” It is true – Black people have suffered much and we are constantly grieving. Yet, there must be space for self-preservation.
So, I did not watch the killing of Floyd. I heard about the video. I listened to people describe the scene. I watched grown men shed quiet tears as they recounted the horror and disbelief of watching Floyd’s last moments. I kept abreast of the trial. I paid attention to news accounts and witnesses’ revelations. But the minute the video starts, I turn the channel. I look away.
I know the details. On May 25, 2020, Floyd allegedly tried to purchase cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. Minutes after the call to police, Chauvin had Floyd on the ground, knee on his neck, and he kept it there. He kept his knee on Floyd’s neck as he cried that he could not breathe. He kept his knee on his neck while the swelling crowd begged him to stop. He kept his knee on his neck for one minute and 20 seconds after paramedics arrived. He kept his knee on Floyd’s neck until he took his last breath.
Many eyewitnesses to the event recounted their trauma during the trial. Darnella Frazier, the teenage girl who recorded the event, said she stayed up many nights apologizing to Floyd because she didn’t intervene and attempt to save his life. Christopher Martin, the store clerk, said he regretted taking the alleged counterfeit $20 bill from Floyd as the memory of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck still haunts him today. Charles McMillian, a 61-year-old bystander, cried as he recalled feeling helpless while watching Floyd cry as Chauvin kept his knee pressed against his neck. These eyewitness accounts of helplessness, horror, distress, guilt and fear mirror the accounts of individuals who watched the incident unfold on their screens. The trauma is real whether you were there in person or not.
Over and over again, the moments leading up to Floyd’s death are replayed across news and social media. On the podcast Ratchet & Respectable, Stacey Patton, author of the upcoming book Strung Up: The Lynching of Black Children and Teenagers in America 1880-1968, describes the replaying of scenes of Black death as a ritual of “racial porn.” In other words, the constant showing of Floyd’s death is a racialized, modern-day snuff film that has its roots in lynching. The practice is heritage and requires making a spectacle of defiling, dehumanizing and degrading Black bodies for public consumption. Yet, despite it’s hallmarks of public brutality, lynching remains a contested and controversial racial justice matter.
We as Black people have a way of converting the horror that has been brought upon us and making it a revolutionary act of resistance. Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley did it with the open casket funeral of Emmett Till. It was no doubt a brave act and marked an important moment in the campaign for Black human rights in the U.S. We were all forced to see what white brutality had done to her 14-year-old son. Mamie Till-Mobley made the conscious decision to make her private grief and the horror written on her son’s body public. Floyd’s family did not. Because they were given no choice in the matter, the logic of bearing witness is no longer an act of resistance, but rather another way to inflict harm. We can never know the trauma they experience from the constant looping of their loved one’s death.
Rankine argues that “refusing to look away from the flesh of our domestic murders” picks up where the scene of acknowledging Till’s lynching left off. Recalling the imagery of Michael Brown’s bullet-ravaged body, smoldering on the hot Missouri asphalt for hours, is a “spectacle for white pornography … that satisfies an illicit desire.” From Till’s lynching to Brown’s bullet-riddled body to the knee on Floyd’s neck, the imagery that stands out is debasing Black bodies for white pleasure and consumption.
The spectacle, according to Patton, is “psychic pleasure and release.” A still frame of Chauvin’s face reinforces this idea as the immense delight in his eyes signaled an orgasmic rush that froze him in time, an uncomfortable truth: Whiteness retains its tyranny through its ability to have unfettered access to Black bodies. The access endows the power to humiliate or praise to elevate or degrade.
Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me writes that we should “never look away” from the viscerality of racism: It is all about the body. All of it – the socioeconomics, history and culture of racism are about the “violence, upon the [Black] body.” But, how much bearing witness must we do in our lifetimes? How much trauma and pain must we endure in the name of resistance? Many may believe that looking away might mean we’re normalizing or accepting these actions.
I disagree. By looking away, we are saying the opposite. We are saying we have seen enough. And, by doing so, we are normalizing that we are tender people too, filled with sadness and loss. Shouldn’t it be normal to preserve our mental health and well-being? If we’re all always moving from one traumatic moment to the next, when do we get to breathe? We have seen enough scenes. So, we claim our bodies from racial injustice, racial profiling, and the heritage and legacy of white tyranny and brutality.
Resmaa Menakem, author of the New York Times bestselling book My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies, suggests that we simply pause, orient ourselves to the spaces we inhabit and breathe into our bodies. The simple act becomes a step in reclaiming our bodies from historic, systemic and intergenerational trauma of racism. We do this because institutionalized white tyranny is being waged against our bodies and we must claim the battlefield of our bodies in order to win the war.
James Baldwin reminds us, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time – and in one’s work.”
If we are not careful, being a Black person in this country can rob us of our softness, lest we forget that there are tender parts of us that need tending to. Seeing one man after the other who could be our father, uncle, brother, cousin or son might harden us or even break us. Let us breathe into our bodies and remind ourselves that our bodies are our own.