What would I pen with all this rage shaking and heating every fiber of my being, I wondered. Was this proof that I was not a good journalist, that I was compromised, that I was someone incapable of being an objective arbiter of the truth? I’m not sure it matters anymore. It didn’t seem right that I never speak his name or reflect on recent events on this platform.
So here I am. I am a black woman, who mourns deaths—recorded and unrecorded, civilian and police brutalized. Here I am a black woman journalist, pondering the media’s performance, sprightly dancing on the obsession with black bodies visibly suffering, lifeless, and then gone.
Everyone seems content flaunting the dead, without ever naming what connects a mutilated corpse of a 14-year-old boy from 1955, to the recorded execution of men jogging, women sleeping, or a man in possession of a fake $20 bill.
It's not fair that we media entities are able to show our hands bloody with fact, without ever telling anyone how deep it runs and how there’s a whole delta for deaths like these. This isn’t some bubbling creek of happenstance death. Media often falls prey to becoming an elaborate game of information telephone. Something happens in which we are not always a direct witness to and we task ourselves with the responsibility of piecing it together as best we can, gluing a mosaic of fact, testimony, and sometimes analysis together in pursuit of the truth.
In this way there are so many ways of relaying the same thing, almost to the point of saying nothing at all, creating static in the receiving end. The mosaic turns from picture to just a gradient—focusing on the symptoms of a bigger story, retaining readership, and attention.
Nothing seems to hold America’s collective attention like a recorded black death and the trauma shrapnel left behind.
The freeze-frame of a mother’s face contorted by sorrow. The rasping croak of a wife or girlfriend trying to explain what the missing void of her man should mean to the world on national television. It seems that even with humanity watching black bodies lack personhood and belong to no one even to themselves, even in death, mourning, and memory. It all belongs to the game of information telephone.
There was a woman named Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley who died in 2003 with a burial monument that reads, “Her pain united a nation.” She herself was a not a direct victim of brutality, but she—like so many other mothers, wives, and daughters forced to reckon with senseless death—had been left behind to weep and writhe in the face of racism. She no doubt felt a mother’s sorrow but wouldn’t stop at that, going on to make a decision that would leave an indelible mark on history and awaken the blaze of the Civil Rights Movement.
For five days in the year of 1955 she presented her 14-year-old son’s mutilated corpse to the world. Two black publications Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender would publish the images, burning Emmet Till’s death into black American memory so deep that it drove many like my great grandmother north, families left in the South quaking, and white America watching, and eventually left without option, to act.
She put her son’s open casket in the information telephone and is remembered for revealing living nightmares for a society that chose to sleep to reality.
Did she unite America? I suppose the answer lies in the fact that we no longer wait to view corpses in a casket. I mean, the news is hottest when the bodies are dying in the street, steadily filmed with telephone cameras, nestled in the algorithms on telephone screens.
When I met the death of George Floyd, I was on Facebook as many of you are now. Scrolling for a passive distraction. I had just finished an interview with Covid-19 survivor, Jamillah Lynn and I was feeling the sort of quick spent breaths one gets from completing a job well done. I was on the phone with a loved one, going over with the parts of the interview I wished were better, like my wifi connection, like the timing of questions, like the frazzled appearance of my hair.
Then I saw it. I’m sure the headline was some string of “black man, death, Minneapolis, George Floyd, police.” It doesn’t matter. My eyes immediately rose to hug the image above it, like they were supposed to. Death greeted me there. My finger flitted to click the link and death opened its hand offering the confirmation I did not need. A ribbon of words folded around the freeze-frame of a nonfiction murder—knee to neck, and a slowing heartbeat, beating into the ground.
By then, what I had seen had shallowed the conversation I was supposed to be having. I explained that I was no longer here and somehow I was somewhere else. Somehow I was with this man on the ground, without even viewing the video.
Mother media had spoken to me as she had so many times, tugging at the seams of separation of me as a black woman and a journalist. As always she would find that the stitches could never have been tighter, especially today. I could no longer thank her for simply keeping me informed this time. I could no longer thank her for letting me know. I could not thank her for opening my eyes to something that lived in my bones.
That week, I curled into myself, crying myself to sleep, only to continue the outpour once I had awakened. I felt crushed from the weight. I let out cries and incredulous ramblings into the void that could only be answered by the depths of the Atlantic, unmarked graves across the country, and the boughs of old trees that held steady when the wind gently rocked the human corpses that hung there. I knew and was mourning something that Floyd’s own daughter didn’t even know.
Gianna Floyd, a six-year-old girl, has already been placed through the telephone game, of course. Interviewed by Good Morning America about the death of her father, she’s unaware of how exactly he died. She only knows what her mother told her, that he died because he couldn’t breathe. She wants to grow up and be a doctor. She misses him. Her mother misses him too. But didn’t we know that already? Is that something we could fathom? Is she the open casket that will allow George Floyd’s humanity to ring true after all? Is this the news? Because if so, I’m beginning to wonder who it’s for.
If when you play the game of telephone with media and countless black bodies, open caskets cradling mutilated corpses, black daughters unaware of what’s taken their father, and videos of executions do not ring clear in your ear. Then maybe media should answer, make it known. Maybe media should stop hiding behind the limp bodies, bitter tears cried, and edited reflections of an unfathered six-year-old girl and call it what it is.
Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley took a chance on the game, showing her battered child’s body to the world. Would she be relieved to know that America is finally contending with placing lynching as a federal hate crime this year? I wonder if she would find her America anywhere near united today. It’s hard to unite under something you refuse to see and even harder when the facilitators of history refuse to name it.
The ability to name and identify is what has made journalism such a pillar of democracy, that when our municipal bodies and institutions refuse to acknowledge a reality, we write back in with bold permanence.
It’s not just George Floyd and Derek Chauvin. It’s not just Breonna Taylor and Louisville police. Derrick Scott and Jarred Tipton. Travon Martin and George Zimmerman. Jason Pero and Brock Mrdjenovich. Paul Castaway and Michael Traudt. It was never just Emmet Till and Carolyn Bryant.
It gives room to state-sanctioned brutality. It gives breath to women in public spaces putting on emotional performances to 911 in hopes of getting a black girl selling water off the stoop and put a black bird-watcher in his place.
“We speak English in this country,” curled around its lips. A key flashes on its hip, that opens cages traumatized children stay because their parents just couldn’t come to America the “right way.” Its the suffocating presence in all these deaths.
Its White Supremacy, off its horse, white sheets folded away, and Tiki torches blown out.
You don’t believe me? Well, just wait, the bodies are still coming over the telephone, any moment now, though I’m in hopes that George Floyd’s is the last any of us will need for a while.