Tanzina Vega: This is The Takeaway. I'm Tanzina Vega. From Minneapolis to Miami, public murals memorializing George Floyd and others killed by police are popping up in communities across the United States. These public arts are more than just tributes to the Black lives lost. They're part of a deeper history of public rituals and displays of Black morning in the United States and with the coronavirus pandemic still ongoing, traditional funerals which have had a particular significance for Black Americans have been largely on pause. That's giving more weight to public art and protests as spaces to mourn collectively. Joining me now is Elizabeth Alexander, a poet, scholar, and president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Elizabeth, welcome to the show.
Elizabeth Alexander: Thank you.
Tanzina: Karla FC Holloway is a professor emerita at Duke University and author of the books Passed On: African American Mourning Stories, A Memorial and A Death in Harlem. Karla, welcome to The Takeaway.
Karla: I'm pleased to be with you. Thank you.
Tanzina: Karla, you have studied Black mourning in the United States. When you see the memorials and the protests that are happening right now, how do those overlap with some of the traditions of Black mourning that you've studied?
Karla: There's a consistent and a deep overlap that we can both celebrate and acknowledge that they are in some sense, problematic in the way that I lament the loss of a private grief, where Black mourning spaces are within the church and within the community. The fact that our mourning only becomes credible through this public spectacle is certainly a moment to acknowledge and to think about carefully.
Traditionally, Black grief has been a ritual of expression in the church, a ritual of expression through the streets of New Orleans as we think about jazz funerals, but it's also become more and more public. I'm thinking about the deaths of Michael Jackson and death funerals that are now in the Staples Center. There's a glimpse into our traditional rituals that to some degree is problematic, but to some degree, turns them into what Elizabeth's wonderful word was when the spectacle of Black grief, the spectacular celebrations of Black grief and just to put celebrations and grief in the same sentence, I think, clarifies my own hesitation with this moment.
Tanzina: I'd love to dig a little bit more into that, Karla, because Elizabeth, you're an artist and I'd love your thoughts on what you see in these murals that have been popping up and to Karla's point, the spectacle of mourning that we're witnessing right now. Is that how you would describe it?
Elizabeth: I think that what's interesting, and Karla began with this, is what belongs to us, our communities, and what belongs to the public at large. What I think is very, very interesting in this moment with so many of the televised funerals, with these murals everywhere. with works even that I would call on the street, murals like the Black Lives Matters, what matters are all lives matter or end white supremacy that we saw painted over the weekend in Newark are part of the making of the art is sometimes part of a community expression of grief, an outcomeising almost of that violence and violation out of racial animus and hatred that it is almost too much to digest.
The ritual is what transforms it into something to use the great musical expression that we come to so often, how I got over, my soul looks back in wonder how I got over. How do you get through this grief that seems too enormous to bear? I think these rituals are part of it.
Tanzina: Elizabeth, you mentioned the word problematic. I'd love for you to explain how is it problematic. What are you using seeing that's concerning to you about the way that Black lives are being mourned right now?
Elizabeth: What troubles me is less how they are mourned and more how the deaths themselves are a repeated spectacle that I believe has been traumatizing to entire generations of young Black people. I have been thinking about that spectacle of the death of George Floyd, 8 minutes and 26 seconds, all of it shown on TV multiple times over, with no kind of filter, with no kind of warning.
I think of traumatic events that don't always result in death but they're absolutely on a continuum of our violation, like the young girl in Texas some years ago, 14 years old, who had a policeman on her back when she was playing at a pool party and her terror and her calling for her mother, the echoes of this. The way that we saw Tamir Rice over and over and over again shot in two seconds outside a gazebo, 12 years old.
Over and over and over again, in people's phones and with young people outside the presence of the adults who love them. It is that spectacle that is sometimes a way of delivering the news and of letting everybody know what's happening but I feel that they are repeated with a disregard for the effect that they are having on young people and they sit outside of ritual. They sit outside of the rituals that we create to mourn our dead and to sanctify the moment. I'm terribly concerned about the effect of that.
Tanzina: Karla, you also said this moment in some ways is problematic. What would you drill down a little bit in that and explain?
Karla: I'm in the same space as Elizabeth. I noticed as even, Elizabeth, as you were naming the names, I was taking a deep breath because with each naming, with each collection of the children, the adults, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, the consequence of that grief gone public interferes with healing and it commits public griefs to labor rather than relief. We're doing this work because that maybe that's a way that someone else acknowledges our humanity.
That's been the cost of this collective public spectatorship because I can't say that either in the moment of the 1960s with the girls who were killed in Birmingham, Emmett Till, things leading to the legislation of the civil rights movement, the television as the commentators back then told us made the difference when people could see.
Tanzina: Elizabeth, in 1994, you wrote an essay about the brutal beating of Rodney King. For many of us, that was our first witness into seeing that type of police violence captured on video. You said in that essay, "Black bodies in pain for public consumption have been an American national spectacle for centuries." Can you elaborate on that?
Elizabeth: Yes, I think that on a continuum with the Rodney King beating or any number of the aforementioned videotaped murders that we've been speaking about, on a continuum with that is Black people in the gladiatorial ring, if you will, of fighting to the near-death or death for entertainment in slavery, disproportionately in the boxing ring and in other realms of athletics that we are a country used to watching Black bodies get beaten and finding sport in that and thinking and believing some of the myths of Black outsized ability to take pain, of Black outsized ability to suppress grief.
I think back to W. E. B. Du Bois's account of being asked if negros could shed tears. This idea that just as with music, just as with dance, that the labor of Black people exists in the United States for the taking, for the entertainment, as well as for the labor and the building of the country, I see all of these on a continuum. I wondered with the case of Rodney King and the way that he was described in court by the officers before they were acquitted as having bear-like superhuman strengths, described as being much larger than he was, which we also see consistent with some of the amazing research that Dr. Philip Atiba Goff has done about Black boys being aged if you will in the estimation of police by four years.
A 12-year-old Black boy and a 12-year old white boy don't both look like 12-year-old sometimes. The Black boy tends to be aged by as much as four years. You look at all of the ways that Black boys are not called children when they are violated and so forth. I think that this has gone on for centuries. What I find very powerful about Mamie Till Mobley, Emmett Till's mother, is how she took this profound tragedy of the murder of her son.
He left Chicago. He went to cousins in Money, Mississippi. He was beaten. An anvil was tied to him. He was shot. He was drowned in the river and his mother insisted once his body was dredged that it come back to Chicago and be shown so that the world could see and the countless people who showed up to that open casket to sanctify his passing, to bear witness, to say, "This is what's happening to our children."
When there wasn't the ability to have that ritual in the conventional sense, she said, "My child's death belongs to all of us." She controlled that spectacle. Then later, another Black institution, Jet Magazine, controlled that spectacle by publishing the picture of the boy in his casket, his ruined body. That was something that I talked about in that essay as well. I think that in the 1950s, that incredible Black strategy in the face of unthinking grief, to also understand that private grief could have a public lesson, I think is pretty extraordinary.
Tanzina: Karla, as we round up the segment, I wanted to point at something you've written about in one of your books. You said that, "Ways of dying are just as much a part of Black identity as ways of living." Can you elaborate on that?
Karla: I do remember saying that or writing that in Passed On. Then thinking about the ways in which part of our resilience is constituted because we get used to this moment. We know that Black death follows us from cradle to grave. Black children have excess mortality. Our first funeral isn't when grandmother dies when we're in college. Our first funeral might be when we are in fourth or fifth grade.
I interviewed children who talked about what they were going to wear for their funerals. We've made it not normative exactly because I would hate to use that phrase with Black death, but we've made it familiar enough so that it is not a fright. It certainly haunts our imaginations but in ways that we've learned to turn it into a funeral and have a particular moment in front of the casket, to lay our hands on the dead or the dying and to be comfortable with those last moments of respect.
That's the kind of thing that led to the courage of Mamie Till Mobley. I remember when I wrote Passed On, I decided not to use that picture from what we called The Jet, but to use the picture of her son whole and hearty and healthy. I didn't use it because she was still alive in that moment and being cautious around this familiarity with death is the moment that I'd like to urge on us even as we all become spectators to Black grief.
Not to think of us as superhuman or without pain or our skin being thicker. All of these things are incorrect, but they have seeped into our imagination about Black folks in ways that make those who are not Black comfortable with being spectators to our grief.
If the cost of this public spectacle is to notice our common humanity, we're going to be out there marching. My nieces are in New York City marching. The elders like me are going to be home thinking the young people are all right. Elizabeth and I will write about it. We will find the space in our living for our dying. I think that's what writing about it in Passed On did for me.
Tanzina: Karla FC Holloway is professor emerita at Duke University and the author of Passed On: African American Mourning Stories, A Memorial. Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, scholar, and president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Elizabeth and Karla, thank you so much for joining us.
Elizabeth: You're welcome and thank you.
Karla: Thank you so much.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.