By Tonia Sutherland | Word In Black

Credit: Getty/Peeterv
Credit: Getty/Peeterv

Remember to imagine and craft the worlds you cannot live without, just as you dismantle the ones you cannot live within. — Ruha Benjamin

(WIB) – In the late summer of 2005, I was enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh. Busy and distracted, I was raising a toddler, working part-time at a local public library, and wrapping up an advanced archives course I had been taking one evening a week. As the summer heat cooled and preparations for the fall semester occupied my attention in Pennsylvania, I had little awareness of how much the world was about to change — and how much I would be changed by coming events. In late August I watched, horrified, as Hurricane Katrina slammed into the city of New Orleans and other parts of the US Gulf Coast. Having grown up in the Northeast, I had experienced hazardous weather conditions such as snow and blizzards. But as the first-generation child of Caribbean immigrants, I knew how devastating the Atlantic hurricane season could be. I had watched and worried many times with my parents as storms made their way toward the tiny islands that my family still called home.

When Katrina hit, it was a recognizable kind of pain, a familiar deep worry. The next day, I watched as the news media talked about flooding, about the waters that had broken through levees that had been installed twenty years earlier under the supervision of the US Army Corps of Engineers. As the city flooded, I watched. Along with so many others, I was devastated. I watched as people became trapped inside their homes, knowing I was witnessing — that we were collectively bearing witness to — a significant loss-of-life event. As the disaster progressed and it became clear the federal government’s response would be pallid at best, my feelings shifted from overwhelming despair and profound sadness to an ever-increasing sense of anger. I was incensed. Each day there was a new encounter with television and internet footage — a daily barrage of images. Rooftops damaged beyond repair. Houses in parts of the city deemed unsalvageable. Dead bodies floating in the overflowing waters of Lake Pontchartrain.

The scale and scope of the city’s damage was demonstrated by showing the American public dead bodies — and the dead bodies were addressed (if at all) as an afterthought to the property.

Those images stayed with me. They haunted me. They haunt me still, today. Months after the hurricane, still reeling, I wrote my final paper as part of my master’s degree in library and information science. In it I recounted in painstaking detail the loss of cultural heritage in New York City and Washington, DC, during the September 11th attacks. Although I now know I wasn’t ready, I also wrote about Katrina. It was my first attempt — somehow reckoning with the sheer volume of material loss — at coming to terms with the scale of the hurricane. It was also my first attempt to reckon with the cruel disregard for human life that I had seen from both the U.S. government and that I had observed via internet and television media. As I wrote that paper, I grew even more troubled. I was concerned about my own approach to the work at hand, which by its very focus seemed to deem the loss of cultural property more important than the loss of life. I was concerned about the very act of doing that work against the backdrop of the ongoing Katrina coverage.

What kept sticking for me was the inescapable fact that as the media talked about the scope of Katrina’s destruction and rebuilding the city of New Orleans, the images that accompanied their coverage weren’t just damaged buildings or debris-strewn streets. Rather, the scale and scope of the city’s damage was demonstrated by showing the American public dead bodies — and the dead bodies were addressed (if at all) as an afterthought to the property. Animating an even deeper sense of horror and distress was the inescapable, visual, and visceral fact that the images of dead bodies on television and on the internet were almost exclusively Black people’s bodies. I was sickened by the truth of it: Black people’s bodies were being callously displayed on TV as part and parcel of signifying the scope of the hurricane’s property damage.

You shouldn’t have to see footage of murdered Black people to be convinced of their humanity.ZELLIE IMANI

Years after Katrina, in another August and while I pursued another degree from the same university, Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown, who was only 18, was killed by police officer Darren Wilson. He was shot in the back, and when his lifeless body hit the ground, law enforcement left him there in the hot August sun in the middle of the street for four hours. While Brown’s body lay uncovered in the streets of Ferguson, he was photographed, and those photographs were quickly published to and widely circulated on the internet. I was yanked back to the feelings that the media coverage of Katrina had evoked. Black people’s bodies — under duress, in the throes of a trauma event, without the light of life — were still a sociocultural commodity almost a century and a half after the institution of slavery had been abolished in the United States. I learned then that to monetize the white savior complex, American society must valorize Black suffering. I also learned that to diminish the perceived impact of white suffering, white Americans must see and believe that Black people are suffering more.

Performance studies scholar Harvey Young has argued that in the United States societal ideas around “the Black Body” (defined as an imagined yet inescapable myth of Blackness) are too often projected onto the actual material bodies of Black people. Ideas about the Black Body that mythologize Blackness also frequently render Black people targets of abuse. Thinking with Young, I argue that the devaluing of the Black Body, when viewed alongside its simultaneous commodification, is not a phenomenon that is particular to individual Black people. Rather, the Black Body is seen as a collective, its pain “shared among the majority of recognizably ‘Black’ bodies . . . who live an objectified existence within the Western world.” 

Too often, we have seen that the idea of the Black Body is easily separated from the actual life of a Black human being.

I agree with this notion of the Black Body collective. But also, the misrecognition of individuated bodies as a monolithic “Black Body” recreates a functional dynamic that views Black people as a commodifiable aggregate. Societal ideas of the “Black Body” flatten individual Black experiences onto a blank palate upon which narratives can be projected and around which harmful mythologies can be formed, such as the myth of the strong and/or angry Black woman or the violent, dangerous Black brute.

These multiple understandings of the Black Body are a central theme in this book. I argue that the separation of the “Black Body” imaginary from the lived experiences of Black people is dangerous because it creates the conditions necessary for the severing of idea from corpus. Too often, we have seen that the idea of the Black Body is easily separated from the actual life of a Black human being; it was exactly this severing that motivated Mamie Till Mobley to demand that America visually confront the brutal reality of her son’s 1955 lynching. In choosing an open casket for her son, Emmett Till, Mobley was firm in her assertion that the world should see what America’s racist hatred had wrought under cover of darkness — not the suppression of some societal idea of a dangerous Black brute but rather the cold-blooded murder of a living, breathing, laughing, playful, beloved 14-year-old boy.

This separation of the “Black Body” imaginary from the lived experiences of Black people manifests in even more pronounced ways in digital spaces, particularly when pain, trauma, joy, and other embodied experiences fail to connect — or, stated differently, when there is a failure to translate the virtual image to the experience of the physical flesh. Too often when a person sees visual pain on a screen, even if that screen is a handled technology, there is a failure to connect that pain to actual human suffering. I assert again and again what Zellie Imani articulated in June 2020 after the murder of George Floyd: “You shouldn’t have to see footage of murdered Black people to be convinced of their humanity.

Dr. Tonia Sutherland is associate professor of information studies at UCLA. In addition to her research and teaching, she is the co-director of the Community Archives Lab at UCLA, co-founder and co-director of AfterLab at the University of Washington’s iSchool, and a member of the advisory board for the Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies at NYU. Sutherland, an internationally recognized expert in the study of Black archival practices and Black digital archives, is the author of Resurrecting the Black Body: Race and the Digital Afterlife” (University of California Press, 2023).