When Billie Holiday performed “Strange Fruit” in the 1930s she’d only sing it to a completely quiet audience. Drinks weren’t allowed to be served, people weren’t allowed to speak. The audience- which was oftentimes predominately white- was made to respect Billie Holiday, as well as the Black struggle, when Billie Holiday was on stage. This was significant for multiple reasons. First, for a Black woman to demand anything was (is) an act of protest against the expectation that we are to accept the status quo. Second, calling out the atrocities of white violence and demanding white folks to listen quietly was not only bold, but it was a shift to some of the traditional responses to lynching. The hanging of Black bodies was sport for some white Americans. White folks would announce the lynching of Black people as an event. When the killing took place, people would gather with their picnics and watch as Black bodies swung from trees. Photos of these human killing events were captured and even turned into postcards for people to collect and send to loved ones. Watching Black bodies die is an American tradition that has only advanced in how it’s shared.
We fast forward to our present, and death by rope has been replaced with the bullet from a police gun. With the most recent deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, people across the globe have been encouraged to practice in this American tradition of watching Black people die. Traditions once thought of as reserved for the backwoods of the South can now be seen on television screens, laptops, and phones with frightening ease.
Without warning, we can go from looking at a picture of a puppy on Instagram to watching the death of someone’s son, someone’s daddy, someone’s partner. I’ve tried to avoid watching any of the deaths that have been caught on tape. Knowing that another Black person has been killed by police is pain that I greatly internalize. I, personally, don’t need to watch it happen to comprehend its tragedy. Trying to avoid these killings has been difficult and has taken much strategic work on my part. This is both concerning and violating.
Don’t misunderstand my concern. Our ability to record police in action is pivotal. It’s our weapon in battle, and we’re still hoping it will bring us justice. When I see police interacting with people of color, I know it’s my obligation to watch what happens, with my phone at my fingertips, just in case. The camera on our phones have granted us the gift of proving our injustice. All these years of others accusing us of storytelling and exaggerating our experiences of police violence is now captured on film.
Yet, still, we have yet to find justice for our murdered brothers and sisters.
There are still people who don’t recognize our deaths as tragic, and there are people who watch these killings over and over and over, trying to figure out some sick way to justify the murders. Even some well-intentioned people have watched the killings, and without realizing it, are becoming numb to seeing a Black person take their last breath.
Meanwhile, children who are savvier with technology than many of the adults in their homes, are learning to watch the murder of people who look like them and their family members. They are having to make sense of what that means for them and their personhood. I have to lead these children and figure out how to support them when summer ends. How does one explain America’s tradition of watching Black murders to an elementary child?