I return to Elizabeth Alexander’s 1994 essay “Can You Be BLACK and Look at This?” often. Sometimes years go by where I don’t reach for it. Other times, the essay pops into my mind without warning and I find myself frantically searching my computer for a PDF. This is one of those times.
There are so many reasons why, right now, Alexander’s meditation on African Americans’ long relationship to images of anti-black violence feel especially urgent: the perpetually growing body of data that show just how disproportionately black and brown people have been affected by COVID-19; the still fresh accounts of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor’s murders; and last week, the cell phone footage of George Floyd’s murder that circulated virally. So I reached for Alexander, again. This was not altogether surprising. Even though the essay is nearly 30 years old and is joined by an expansive and generative body of writing on race and visual culture, when I teach classes on the history of race and media or 19th-century African American literature I still remind my students that everything you need to begin is in this essay. Alexander’s words are both timely and prescient. They invite us to reconsider the complex ways that we encounter a record of anti-black violence now.
Written in the aftermath of the widespread circulation of a video recording of Rodney King’s 1991 beating at the hands of four LAPD officers, their subsequent acquittal, and the publics’ response to the jury’s verdict, the essay is a meditation on black community formation within a visual economy that is structured by anti-black violence. Alexander begins and ends with King’s beating, considering how and why images move us to action, whether directly or indirectly; but her essay also unearths a long history of African Americans having to bear witness to anti-black violence. The video of King’s beating is not so much the point of arrival as part of an “open series” that stretches back to 19th-century autobiographies written by the enslaved.
Along the way we stop at the turn of the 20th century, where African Americans were lynched at record rates in front of overflowing crowds, and at the mid-20th, when anti-black violence against activists was perpetrated by the sate in the name of social control, but also when young boys like Emmett Till were killed for no reason other than living while black. Looking ahead from Till and King, we run squarely into George Floyd, whose murder was recorded for all the world to see.
Today, our far too expansive archive of video recordings of black death that circulate on social media and appear, often without our consent, in our browser tabs are also highly sonic affairs. Second to the appetite for seeing black suffering is the appetite for hearing it. As much as “Can You Be BLACK and Look at This?” is an attempt to theorize how, in her words, black folks “bear witness to the act of watching and retelling,” it is also an essay about the ways that blackness and visual media converge to produce black life as a problem that must be solved through, among other tactics, deadly force. Recorded from a distance, the 81 seconds of footage of the King beating were not just conducive to mass circulation; the recording could also be slowed down and distorted through techniques like freeze framing. These technical possibilities, Alexander shows us, were especially advantageous in the courtroom. In the hands of the defense team, the manipulated footage could be dehistoricized and decontextualized and made to buttress self-serving accounts of police violence.
The King footage was also silent. Hearing the videos, Alexander intimates, might have made some difference, might have triggered some empathy in a juror, or at least conveyed a more complete picture of the night’s events. Hearing the videos might have disrupted, she suggests, the process of spectatorship that has always been at work in the process that transmutes black life into a disposable object. The promise of sound is that it might interrupt the iconicity of violence and resituate the event in real time, a time where the terror in King’s voice and the cries of witnesses might have paved the way for a different outcome.
I return to Alexander as I avoid the viral video of the police officer kneeling as Floyd gasps for air, calls for his mother, and repeats the phrase, “I can’t breathe.” Or at least this is what I’ve read and heard he says. Like so many of my friends, I have not watched the video. The decision was not so much a conscious refusal; that would suggest that I wanted to view it in the first place. Nor was it an overt act of resistance. I was too exhausted for that. It was a kind of non-decision, which, Elizabeth Alexander helps me remember, owes to the deep vulnerability and knowledge that is lodged in my flesh. Witnessing doesn’t necessarily require watching.
If we have been able to avoid watching videos of anti-black violence, it is more difficult to avoid listening to them. Sometimes we hear the voice of the victim, sometimes it’s the unintentional sound of the recorder; other times it’s static, a kind of low frequency that is equal parts social life and technology, like cars, traffic and distant music. In many cases the victim’s words become iconic in their own right. Not unlike the freeze frame, a fragment of sound can be extracted and decontextualized from the videos, recomposed into social media feeds and onto posters at protests. Sometimes they stand in for an entire political program, so that posting a phrase like “I Can’t Breathe” is treated as political action in itself. As substitute for the images that we know are too violent to post, words like “I can’t breathe” operate as a synecdoche for the black body and voice. They circulate freely on social media and as part of attention-grabbing headlines. They aim to remind viewers and listeners that George Floyd could speak, that he was a man, that his life mattered, that his was a life worth accounting for.
Yet as these sound fragments get recomposed into political action, I am worried that the soundscape risks enacting another form of abstraction. It may very well be, as Alexander hoped, that witnessing has to be both visual and aural, that having more sound on these videos might finally be what allows us to see blackness differently, to see it correctly, as it were. This is likely what the bystander who recorded the attack had in mind when they committed to filing the entire duration of the encounter between George Floyd and the Minneapolis Police Department: more information, more context, more evidence. But when it comes to convicting offending officers in the cases of anti-black violence, has sound delivered on its promise?
What would it mean to hear the videos of black violence differently? Not as phrases or quotes separable from their speaker or original context, but as part of a larger sonic atmosphere? To restage Alexander’s question, what does it mean to bear witness in the act of listening to a recording? I suggest that one approach would be to make a distinction between listening to black living and to black life. Listening to black living means not solely listening for what the victim or perpetrator has to say, but also attending to the entire soundscape. This is a sonic terrain of sociality that is irreducible to a quote; it can’t be circulated on social media or mobilized as a proxy for politics. To listen to black living is to hear what endures long after the video has stopped or the scene of murder has been cleared.
Autumn Womack is an Assistant Professor at Princeton University, where she holds appointments in the departments of African American Studies and English. Her research focuses on the intersection of black cultural life and visual technologies. She is currently completing a book on data, visuality, and black literary aesthetics at the turn of the 20th century entitled Un-disciplining Data.
Photograph by Jennifer Croft.