“Dying will not be our living legacy”: Violence, Racial Pornography, and Black Healing

an essay by Mychal Shanks


This paper analyzes the excessive displays of images of violence against black people in both social media and narrative fiction. With increasing movements against the police brutality of black and brown people, graphic images have served as a call to action but recent frequency of such images calls into question, when do these images become more harmful then helpful? Though social media can be a unifying agent to showcase oppression, the constant and often uncensored barrage of videos and images of Black people being physically harmed and murdered by police on social media creates a racial pornography that is then replicated in the art black artist create but in actuality is hindering the healing process and replaying trauma.



Mychal Shanks is a current MA Cinema Studies graduate at San Francisco State University. They graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a BA in Film and Digital Media with an emphasis in Film Studies. They’re interests center around their identities such as African American representation, gender, sexuality, and LGBT issues. When not in the classroom talking about film, they’re with their friends talking about film or on social media talking about film or watching a film on one of the many streaming sites. They really like film and TV.

Every morning when I wake up, the first thing I do is check social media. It’s a very millennial thing to do but what can I say, I am one. At least once a week, I see a video or image attached to an informative tweet or post about a Black person being harassed, harmed, or worse murdered by a police officer. Usually it’s sandwiched in my feed between whatever the newest meme is and funny text posts. But the frequency of these images leaves one wondering, why do we need to see Black people being hurt? Though social media is a relatively new tool for activism, it’s not new to showcase Black bodies being harmed to raise awareness of injustice. The most memorable examples being the images of Emmett Till and the videotape of Rodney King. Videos and images of the brutalization or sometimes murder of Black men, and often ignored Black women, by the police has been a spark for much of the recent racial movements and the beginning of a much needed dialogue here in America.
With the fairly recent invention of social media, images, videos and information can be shared more rapidly then ever before.

Today, 56 percent of the U.S population carries video-enabled smartphones, and the use of mobile technology is particularly high among African Americans. The increased use and availability of these technologies has provided marginalized and racialized populations with new tools for documenting incidents of state-sanctioned violence and contesting media representations of racialized bodies and marginalized communities. In many cases—such as police officers’ use of a chokehold in the murder of Eric Garner—the use of mobile technology to record and circulate footage of events has played a key role in prompting public outcry. (Bonilla and Rosa, 5)

Though the act of using social media can be a unifying and informative agent to showcase oppression like in Ferguson, the constant and often uncensored barrage of videos of Black people being physically harmed and murdered by police on social media creates a racial pornography that is then replicated in the art black artist create but in actuality is hindering the healing process and replaying trauma.

Social media has played a huge role in activism in the past decade. Some of the most famous examples would be the Arab Spring in 2010 and more recently the Black Lives Matter movement, especially in Ferguson in 2014. Not until the recent Parkland Shooting “March for Our Lives” has a nationwide scale protest been coordinated on social media. Yet the images still appear on a semi regular basis of Black people being harmed by police. The images are somewhat reminiscent of the images of Emmett Till and lynching photographs. Lynching was considered a spectacle, with white families having parties and picnics as black bodies hung in the nearby trees. But with the Internet, the images are just a search away. “Goldsby also wants to suggest that the Till images contribute to what she calls a ‘high-tech’ lynching […] one that manifested itself on the pages of newspapers and in the ether of television broadcasts” (Harold and DeLuca, 278). “High-tech lynching”, as with the case of Emmett Till, can be empower but has become a source of violence for Black Americans.
Though the images of Emmett Till and even Rodney King brought a face to the racial injustices black people experience and spread awareness and unity cross platforms such as newspapers and television, it seems that in 2018 they have become almost desensitizing and even cause racially based PTSD.

According to Monnica Williams, clinical psychologist and director of the Center for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Louisville, graphic videos (which she calls vicarious trauma) combined with lived experiences of racism, can create severe psychological problems reminiscent of post-traumatic stress syndrome. (Downs)

These images are causing mental side effects for black people and yet we, as black Americans keep showing them. Especially when there seems to be a disparity between violence being shown against black people compared to other races.

April Reigns, a Black activist and writer, gives the example of Allison Parker and Adam Ward, two Virginia news reporters, who were murdered live on Facebook by a former coworker. And yet the footage was never shown on television. “Many news organizations cited respect for the victims and their families as the basis of their decision. Reign says that sense of humanity isn’t typically given to victims of color, especially black-Americans. Instead, their gruesome final movements are replayed again and again for all to see” (Downs). The images have now become less of a spectacle to shake us into social consciousness and more of an avoidable truth that black people can’t escape and ironically seem to perpetuate.
A way that social media unconsciously continues the merciless distribution and cycle of violent images and trauma of Black people is through it’s use of autoplay. Autoplay is when a video begins playing the moment you pause, hoover, or scroll by it. Most popular social media websites such as Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook have an autoplay function on their website. This raises the question around the issue of consent. Seeing a funny animal video playing on your timeline or feed probably elicits less of a reaction then seeing Chikesia Clemons’, a 25 year-old Black woman who was arrested and forcibly stripped in a Waffle House in Alabama, exposed breasts and police brutalization play a couple times on your timeline in one day. Even though most online news outlets now censor graphic material in some way, you still are able to see what is happening. As well as, the original video might come from a socially conscious user who doesn’t censor the original video. There is also usually never a warning about the content in the videos. Autoplay videos can reopen trauma for people in general but with the in flux of videos and images of black people being mistreated by the police, it seems almost inescapable to avoid unless you just completely get off of social media. With all this, the question bears in mind, when does this stop being activism and become something else entirely? Something that is more harmful than beneficial.

Racial pornography, how I will define it in this essay, is the frequent use of images to project a certain type of thinking onto the racialized body, whether intentionally or not. Usually this produces a negative effect. The best and earliest example of racial pornography is the film Birth of a Nation, which depicts Black men to be brutish, savage monsters like in the infamous “Gus chase” scene, when Gus chases Flora Cameron through the forest to try to rape her and she instead throws herself off a cliff and dies. The consistency and frequency of these negative images that depict Black people in such a way soon becomes a reality to people’s consciousness. This dialogue and imagery could be seen in the Michael Brown shooting case, when Darren Wilson described the events saying Michael Brown looked like a demon and that he felt very small. Even though the two men are the same height and almost the same weight. The constant imagery of Black men being hulking beasts in fiction creates lasting beliefs in reality that can confirm prejudices. Which makes me wonder what picture these police shooting videos are painting? Due to the sheer amount and frequency, I believe that police shooting videos and police brutality videos, in general, against unarmed black people has become unintentionally racially pornographic because it keeps showing black bodies suffering and is desensitizing images of Black death. This also flows over into the realm of fiction from literature, film, television and music, which tries to say it’s doing so in the name of healing but it’s doing nothing but recreating traumatic events. The following examples of this I will be discussing are Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Justin Simien’s Netflix series Dear White People, and Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.”

12 Years A Slave

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, is based on the historical true story of Solomon Northup, a free Black man from the North that was captured and sold into slavery for twelve years. Both incredibly acted and shot, the film is beautiful. But the main question raised from this movie is, why film it in the first place? Though the true story is inspirational and moving, why do we need another movie about the harsh atrocities of slavery in this modern era? Must we be forced to see the tattered bodies, gruesome torture, and inhumane treatment of Black slaves to acknowledge that slavery existed in this country? It calls into question, who is this for? Steve McQueen commented on BBC Newsnight that he “doesn’t make films for white people.” So if 12 Years a Slave isn’t for white people and for people of color, mainly Black people, then how is this affecting us?
Michael K. Williams, on the Arsenio Hall show, discussed how emotionally tolling one scene was on him, during 12 Years A Slave, stating that he began sobbing and screaming when McQueen yelled cut. The emotional toll of reliving trauma is hard on the audience but probably indescribable for the actor actually having to reenact it. April Reign for a Washington Post column titled “Why I will not share the video of Alton Sterling’s death,” calls this fascination with Black death, “fodder for a sick sort of voyeurism” (Reign). That same sentiment can be applied to films such as 12 Years a Slave.
A prime example of how this film is racially pornographic is the scene where Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) is being whipped. The scene is a tracking shot of Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) whipping Patsey at the behest of the white slave master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). The camera movement take on this role of a floating spectator, mimicking the movements of a curious observer as we walk around in the scene. Though for most of the scene we don’t see Patsey’s back, the tension truly comes from not seeing the violence. The use of the faces in the scene is extremely powerful creating an emotional connection between audience and characters. Christine Harold and Kevin Michael DeLuca mention in their article “Behold the Corpse: Violent Images and the Case of Emmett Till” that “The power of Till’s body is intensified not because it is a photo of a corpse, but a photo of the face of a corpse or, what was a face” (274). The faces in the scene create an unbearable connection that makes a striking contrast to the fact that the camera, and by extension the viewer, are almost afraid to look at Patsey’s back because we already know what we’ll see. But we eventually do see it and it feels more like a moment of shock that cheapens the scene.

Dear White People

The Netflix original show Dear White People, based on the 2014 film of the same name, doesn’t shy away for bringing up issues surrounding race. They have tackled issues such as colorism, alt-right white supremacy, and racial inequalities in the academic system. In the first season episode five of the show, Reggie (Marque Richardson), an outspoken, political, tech savvy black male student of Winchester, is at a mostly white house party held by his white friend Addison. At one point in the night, while singing and dancing to a rap song Addison says the N-word, which Reggie promptly and calmly calls him out on. The two get into a scuffle, which brings in campus security. One of the security officers proceeded to harass Reggie asking for his student I.D. Reggie refuses and the scene escalates to where the officer pulls a gun out on Reggie. The scene eventually deescalates and Reggie goes unharmed but the traumatic experience follows him through the rest of the season and continues into the second season. Though the issues of PTSD are brought up within the show following this event, they are often reenacted by the scene of the officer pulling his gun on Reggie. After the one episode in season two about Reggie’s PTSD, it is quickly sidelined and never discussed again even though no real resolution came from the episode. It seems to fall flat with its message, which is unfortunate since the images are so striking and traumatic.

Childish Gambino

The same can be said about Childish Gambino’s music video for “This Is America.” It has been mostly hailed for how thought provoking the music video is, with various online articles and videos discussing and dissecting the hidden messages in it. And yet a few people challenged that praised by the fact that Gambino replicated shootings of black people for shallow commentary on gun violence. The two scenes in question are within the first minute of the video; Gambino pulls out a gun and shoots a black man sitting on a chair with a bag over his head. The second scene is an all black choir singing and dancing to the song. Gambino enters through a door from the back of the room and dances his way in. He is then thrown an assault rifle and massacres the choir, evoking similarities to the Charleston church shooting. Though everyone has a right to heal however they feel, does replicating these images actually add to the on going dialogue of police brutality and gun violence? I argue that these images actually fall more into the realm of racial pornography. Though these images are going against the grain in the fact that Glover, a black man, is the one pulling the trigger, the revolutionary façade stops there. It is just continuing the desensitization of seeing black bodies’ die this time to a catchy song.
When I first started this project, I thought about including videos of victims of police shootings into the piece to demonstrate the similarities between the fiction and the reality. But when entering into my Internet search the names of Eric Garner, Rodney King, Tamir Rice, and Emmett Till, I realized I couldn’t include those images. Watching Tamir Rice be gunned down again brought tears to my eyes. Seeing Emmett Till’s face, even though I can picture it in my memory, brought back a gut wrenching feeling. These images will forever be just a click away for anyone to see. But the trauma these images bring isn’t something that should be perpetuated for the sake of validity. What this project boils down to is trauma. How do Black Americans deal with racialized trauma through social media, activism, and art? Do we tweet, post, and livestream about it? Do we recreate it? Do we ignore it? How do we heal? I personally don’t know. As a community, it’s a conversation we need to be having.
The point of this essay isn’t to say that graphic images of the atrocities committed against black people shouldn’t be seen and can’t act as a form of healing and resistance to some. But when black bodies are commonly seen violently hurt and brutalized, especially compared to other races or violent events, it becomes less a question of healing and more representation. If we are choosing to show these images then let’s make sure they stand for something much like the decision Mamie Till Bradley made to let the world see her son. Carol E. Henderson writes in her short essay “Sacrificial Lambs: How Many Dead Bodies Is Enough?” in Our Black Sons Matter that, “dying will not be our living legacy” (86). Yet the art, the passion, and the healing we create would seem to prove that otherwise. Healing does not mean reliving. And as a Black artist this is something I need to keep at the forefront of my thinking and my art.

Work Cited

  1. Adee, Sally. “What to Do When Murder Goes Viral.” New Scientist, vol. 227, no. 3037, 2015, pg. 10–11.
  2. Bonilla, Yarimar, and Jonathan Rosa. “#Ferguson: Digital Protest, Hashtag Ethnography, and the Racial Politics of Social Media in the United States.” American Ethnologist, vol. 42, no. 1, 2015, pg. 4-17.
  3. Downs, Kenya. “When black death goes viral, it can trigger PTSD like trauma.” PBS News Hour, 22 July 2016.
  4. Harold, Christine, and Kevin Michael DeLuca. “Behold the Corpse: Violent Images and the Case of Emmett Till.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs, vol. 8, no. 2, 2005, pg. 263-86.
  5. Priest, Myisha. “‘The Nightmare Is Not Cured’: Emmett Till and American Healing.” American Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 1, 2010, pg. 1-24.
  6. Ralph, Laurence, and Chance, Kerry. “Legacies of Fear: From Rodney King’s Beating to Trayvon Martin’s Death.” Transition: An International Review, no. 113, 2013, pg. 137.
  7. Reign, April. “Why I will not share the video of Alton Sterling’s death.” The Washington Post, 6 July 2016.
  8. Toch, Hans. Cop Watch: Spectators, Social Media, and Police Reform. 1st ed., American Psychological Association, 2012.
  9. Yancy, George, et al. Our Black Sons Matter: Mothers Talk about Fears, Sorrows, and Hopes. 2016.