Intellectualization of Black Death

Stephanie Wambugu


Maybe, in a classroom, we forget that people are actually dying. It is worth repeating: people are dying. Behind statistics are individuals and it is easy to lose sight of those particulars in trying to make honest generalizations. But I see my kin, friends, and loved ones in these statistics, not numbers. Waking up each morning to a new name is real. It is real because I know my own vulnerability to this thing we call police brutality. I want my peers, those who my not be as vulnerable, to feel the realness I feel.


Though they are not susceptible to the same kind of violence that I am, I want them to look at every black life lost with empathy and understand the magnitude of that loss. In an academic setting we can quickly become voyeurs — onlookers unto the grief of another — and this is something we need to consciously avoid. We must make it a point to recall the names of lives lost. Once this phenomenon of black death at the hands of police becomes just another every day occurrence, then we’ll have fully failed to extend humanity to one another. If we care, we need to be able to actively engage, not just intellectually, but empathetically too. On voyeurism, Aimé Césaire writes, “And most of all beware, even in thought, of assuming the sterile attitude of the spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of grief is not a proscenium, a man who wails is not a dancing bear.”


A constant loop of uncensored footage of the brutalization of the black body can lend itself to treating this tragedy as a spectator sport. Despite this, it’s necessary to check ourselves so as not to become numb to the value of a human life. When you hold the subjects of your study or inquiry, in this case Black Americans, at arms length you sterilize our pain for your consumption. I resist this. I’m not willing to read publications that exploit images of black death for their journalistic practice. Black people aren’t living or dying for shock value. The suggestion that you must explicitly see a black murder to understand it is a tragedy only reinforces the fact that our humanity is always at stake in the public eye. This voyeurism does nothing to undo this history and currently reality of abuse. It only proves your detachment from our lived experience. I don’t need an academic text to understand that this country is anti-black. Racism is more than a unit within a syllabus for me. Some students cannot separate inequality studied from inequality lived because this has always been our experience. This is not to discount the ways that academia can be used to dismantle anti-blackness, but to remind us of the ways that academia can distance itself from its subjects in ways that treats them as objects.


So much of this epidemic is seeing black people as non-human. I think this begins in our language. Namely, the use of language that criminalizes black victims and fails to see black people as humans first. Like any other person, living or dead, black lives lost deserve to be called by name. Also, in order to honestly talk about anti-black police violence, we need to acknowledge the ways that it affects all black people and challenge exclusive language. This means not making narrow statements like: black men are dying, because this centers men and negates all of the black women dying at the hands of police as well. This means using photographs that humanize black victims and show them as they lived, not died. This also means demanding justice before the fact. Yes, it is important to mourn. Grief needs to be felt, but how do we engage with black people who are alive and exist in our communities?


Being giving our resources, money, times and selves shows that we are willing to engage beyond the classroom or television. I can’t help but feel disillusioned and withdrawn from a country that is constantly killing people that look like me without consequence, but there is still work to do. And learning though important, is not enough. All of this theory fails without practice.


After all, we aren’t here to gain knowledge if it only distances and detaches us from those who we are learning about.



Image by Carrie Mae Weems

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