Documentation of gruesome realities has long been a propaganda tactic for societal change. It was the publication of a photo of Gerri Santoro’s body, posed as though prostrating herself before an altar, that brought the abortion debate to the forefront following its publication in Ms. Magazine in 1973. The enduring, haunting image of Phan Thi Kim Phúc, a small Vietnamese girl, running crying down the road following a napalm attack helped Americans back home grasp and understand the truly horrific nature of the war in southeast Asia. And it was photographs of 18-year-old Michael Brown’s body, left prone on the street for four hours in the hot Missouri summer sun, that helped spark a national movement against police brutality.
But this last example — and the systemic ill it highlights — has proved to be a double-edged sword.
But this last example — and the systemic ill it highlights — has proved to be a double-edged sword, as we are reminded of in the aftermath of the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in February. During the Jim Crow era, mobs of white people lynched black Americans with impunity. Black men were the most common victims, but Native Americans, Jews, Latinx and white progressives were also victims. And yet, none were documented so thoroughly as the lynched bodies of black men.
Photography was a relatively new technology at the time, and white people put it to use documenting their crimes, taking photos of themselves smiling next to brutalized black bodies, often beaten beyond recognition. The photos were turned into postcards, mementos of a divided South, often sent to friends and family just like you might send a snapshot of a landmark or a field of flowers.
The U.S. officially banned lynching postcards and the distribution of such photographs in 1908, but that didn’t stop the continued documentation by white supremacists throughout the country. Less than 10 years after the ban, it was defied by an unexpected source — the nascent National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP. In May 1916, a black man named Jesse Washington was found guilty of murdering a white woman in Waco, Texas. In a trial that could hardly be called fair, it took the jury all of three minutes to convict him, and a mob quickly formed demanding his death. Local photographer Frank Gildersleeve captured the scene as Washington was dragged from the courthouse, beaten with chains and eventually suspended above the crowd and set on fire.
With some legwork from NAACP organizers in Texas, the organization obtained Gildersleeve’s photos and in 1919 published them in The Crisis, the organization’s monthly magazine. By publishing what was essentially a flipbook of photos of a lynching, readers across the nation were forced to look at a macabre and brutal cultural phenomenon. The publication of the photos demanded that people not look away, that they take the pain seriously. Seeing the brutality demanded action. The anti-lynching movement took shape.
But while laws have changed, lynchings have not stopped. Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, was shot to death on Feb. 23 while jogging through a small development just outside Brunswick, Georgia. Brunswickis 56 percent black, though this particular neighborhood was largely white. During his jog, Arbery paused to look into a construction site, a white neighbor called the police, and former police officer Greg McMichael and his son Travis hopped into a truck and — armed with shotguns — confrontation Arbery on the road. With another neighbor recording, the confrontation resulted in Arbery being shot three times.
The release of the video, two months after the fact, has raised a number of questions about the propagation of black death as a political tool, and rightfully so. Arbery’s killing fits the definition of a lynching — the McMichaels thought Arbery was a burglar, but there is no evidence to suggest this is true. Lynchings are, by definition, extrajudicial and racist in their very nature; they are built not on a desire for justice but on a white supremacist desire for the exertion of power over those deemed other.
Arbery’s killing, documented by a white man who is still under investigation for his possible involvement in cornering Arbery, similarly serves to enforce white power over black Americans.
The dissemination of the video was met with outrage by the black community, which has been forced once again to experience how fragile their ability to exist in a white dominated world is.
The dissemination of the video was met with outrage by the black community, which has been forced once again to experience how fragile their ability to exist in a white dominated world is. But such videos have also goaded whites into action, because they make visible the typically unseen horror that passes under our radar in so many every day. An argument can be made that the videos of black death in this century serve the same purpose and function as the publication of the lynching photos of Jesse Washington in 1919.
The NAACP’s publication and use of the photos complicates and subverts the narrative of lynching photos as tools of white supremacy. However, a situation in which black people regain power by controlling the narrative is not the same as videos released by defense lawyers in an effort to, allegedly, clear the air. Instead of a call to action, these videos of lynchings help further the white supremacist agenda of terror.
So can these videos — and their power — be reclaimed?
Yes, but we as white people cannot do that — we must follow the lead of our black brothers and sisters, and understand their terror as the price they pay for simply existing. As Ta-Nehisi Coates warns in “Between the World and Me,” the black struggle cannot be dependent on white conversion to a black understanding of the world. We as white people need to stop demanding black pain as proof of an unjust world.