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Breonna Taylor, Black Death, and Hypervisibility

We must keep fighting for Breonna Taylor, and the authorship of her personhood as an individual with agency.

Legacy Russell28 May 2024

Breonna Taylor, Black Death, and Hypervisibility

In March 2020, Breonna Taylor, a Black medical worker, was shot and killed in a no-knock Police raid on her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky. Twenty-two shots were fired; six of those shots struck Taylor, who died at the scene. Strikingly, the website includes “Death of Breonna Taylor” in its listings, referring in its description to a Reddit post from May 14, 2020, that reads: 

On March 13, 2020, these three fuckers conducted a no-knock raid on Breonna Taylor’s apartment. 22 shots were fired with some bullets going into other apartments. 6 of those bullets struck Ms. Taylor and ended her short life. THEY WERE AT THE WRONG APARTMENT.

That post, and the one that followed on May 29 from a Redditor who published the audio of the call Taylor’s boyfriend made to 911, received thousands of points, upvoted at 94 and 95 percent respectively, a showing of the immense engagement metrics for this material when accessed by the public online.

The police officers who raided Taylor’s home initially claimed they were not using body cameras. There was no broadcast to social media live-streamed by Taylor in the moment. Therefore, the public’s witness, voyeurism, and spectatorship were at first obfuscated by the lack of “live” digital capture. In an effort to put together the pieces, the New York Times created a 3D digital recreation, empowering online audiences to watch and replay the timeline of that fateful evening.

While Taylor’s family actively filed suit claiming the existence of the body camera footage in an effort to bring the fuller narrative of what took place to light and Taylor to justice, this lack of early memetic evidence was no barrier to the amplification of Breonna Taylor fandom, fetish, and visual commodification as it proliferated online internationally. Across the spring and summer of 2020, we watched waves of non-Black friends and colleagues, along with superstars we followed, shockingly posting clickbait images of “sideboob” and other references unrelated entirely to Taylor alongside notes on Black Lives Matter. Emblematic among these, Harry Potter star Emma Watson’s June 2 Instagram post with the hashtag #SayHerName generated over 1.4 million likes in under twenty-four hours.

The decorative donning of hashtags such as #SayHerName and #JusticeBreonnaTaylor in this early 2020 moment revealed yet again the relationship between Black death and visibility. It made it clear that Black death, in its transmission, maximizes and makes hypervisible everyday Blackness that might otherwise be rendered invisible. It also catalyzes and advances the star power of those who apply it strategically. Indeed, the GoFundMe set up for Taylor’s family raised over $6.5 million, and, in a first, Oprah Winfrey placed Taylor on the cover of O, The Oprah Magazine instead of the usual image of Winfrey herself. What tennis champion Arthur Ashe in 1992 called “the totem pole of visibility” creates a codependent index of fame that binds Black viral trauma to the key performance indicators, or “KPIs,” of excellence in contemporary media.

Ashe’s “totem pole” signals an award for a model of Blackness that has been hewn to the sensation of injury, predicating visibility on an adoption of the age-old media adage “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Thus, the staging (and restaging) of pain, and its application within digital culture as a garnish to Blackness, has prompted a rise and acceleration of the Black meme. In August of 2020, I sent into the internet ether a series of tweets concerning the killing of Breonna Taylor and its digital digestion. Revisiting them now, in sequential order, they read:

The aestheticization of #BreonnaTaylor is unacceptable. It is not radical to make her image decorative. There is a complex art/history re: decorative concealing violence. Are beautiful images dignity—or justice? Is her family being compensated for the use of her image? 
I honestly think we get confused when we see these images because we feel some sense of kinship with them—it is *so rare* to see quotidian everyday representation of ppl ESP a Black / femme “ordinary” with such visibility that we laud the presence + production of these images
We get confused + disoriented + feel pacified (bc that’s what the decorative does!) but what is the message we send when we accept these images as “justice,” in lieu of recognising them as overdue acknowledgement of dignity we are due not in our death, but in our ordinary life?
Demand more! We deserve more than a dignity campaign of the decorative!

The tweets themselves—a tender mourning and intimate expression of bewilderment in the face of the disturbing nature of what was witnessed on-and offline—went viral. While at the time it stunned me, given the pandemic isolation of the moment as many sheltered in place, the virality of these missives should not in any way have come as a surprise. They were part of a larger memetic circulation: a Google search for “Breonna Taylor decoration” surfaces results such as magazine covers, products sold on Etsy, Pinterest boards, wallpaper, and yard signs sold on Amazon for just $17.99—and that is just the start.

It is a difficult question to pose, but it must be asked: is Taylor’s afterlife one that lives on as an ornamentalized totem? Furthermore, is this yet another system of erasure, compounded by repetition? Culture writer Zeba Blay, in a July 2, 2020, Huffington Post article, identified where it hurt the most: Turning Breonna Taylor into a meme, then, risks turning the conversation around what justice looks like for her into a temporary fad … as “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” gets repeated over and over again, it becomes an abstraction, it begins to lose meaning.

We wonder, then: Is Blackness itself a decorative art? The scholarship of art historian and curator Adrienne L. Childs illuminates these inquiries by reaching back in time, providing us with another anchor. In her study of eighteenth-century representations in European art, Childs unpacks what she terms as “ornamental Blackness”: The vogue for representing the African body in decorative arts served to disseminate tropes of [B]lackness throughout spaces of wealth and refinement in rococo Europe … the [B]lack servant in European art that had become a ubiquitous symbol of exoticism and luxury since the Italian Renaissance.

It remains so today. Artist Lorraine O’Grady’s essay “Olympia’s Maid” brings to the fore the Black servant Laure in Édouard Manet’s iconic 1863 painting Olympia, who is featured, troublingly, as a decorative prop. Grady writes: “Olympia’s maid, like all the other ‘peripheral Negroes’ is a robot conveniently made to disappear into the background drapery.”

These Black femme figures of Laure and Taylor unify across time, mutually at risk of becoming fashionable motifs that function mechanically as signifying vessels. Both are failed by the culture that consumes them yet does not do the work to truly love them. Being part of the circulation of visual material has made each famous, but despite their hypervisibility, they fall short of being truly recognized in their humanity. Again, the relationship between icon and symbol surges: How can we honor Taylor without rendering her invisible via her hypervisibility? And what can reparations look like to repay the debt to the Black meme?

Professor K. J. Greene, a scholar of entertainment and intellectual property law, calls for some beginnings of these reparations through what he terms revised “copynorms,” an atonement for  the cultural appropriation and creative theft of Black artists. Greene flags contract and intellectual property law as foundational issues within a discourse of the transmission of Black material, writing, “No one wants their property taken from them and distributed without their permission … For many generations, [B]lack artists as a class were denied the fruits of intellectual property protection—credit, copyright royalties and fair compensation.”

Indeed, the current systems are reflective of deeply rooted historical frameworks of racial subordination, structural inequality, and asymmetric bargaining relations. Greene underscores the issue of class as essential to an understanding of how these inequities have been compounded over time, with the content of cultural production often stemming from Black people’s survival under the conditions of generations of disinherited wealth. As a consequence, the tradition of Blackness is transmitted somatically—what is embodied, worn and styled, how one moves, speech acts and vernacular utterances, sonic and haptic practices—rather than transferred via the inheritance, or carrying, of valued physical objects as property. 

Blackness as it intersects with modernity, therefore, has always been the commodity to transmit, and the asset to maximize via viral broadcast. Legal scholars Anjali Vats and Diedré Keller’s 2018 article “Critical Race IP” expands on Greene’s proposal, observing, “With the radical changes brought by Betamax, VHS, the Internet, and Napster between the 1970s and 1990s, big content owners found themselves in deeply unfamiliar and rapidly shifting territory that impacted their core business models.”

While “big content owners” were initially unfamiliar with how to succeed with the accelerated technologies as they kept advancing, what we can frame here as “little content owners” (for the sake of shaping an opposing force in dialogue with Vats and Keller) have been, and are increasingly today, tasked with strategizing towards virality. Thus, the most viable asset that one has in one’s possession is Blackness as a “core business model” itself.

For those not born with it, this has a twist: if one is not Black, this same culture that renders Black people invisible via their hypervisibility sends the paradoxical message that if one wants to be seen, one had better “Black up” real quick. For many non-Black “content creators” now, what White American novelist Norman Mailer augured in the title of his erythrogenic 1957 essay White Negro has somehow become a calling and vocation.

With all these copies of the copies in the minstrelsy of Black digital memesis, it becomes difficult, then, to attempt to see, feel for, or engage directly the original. As Greene reminds us, authorship “is the foundation of copyright, and authorship, like race and gender, is socially constructed.” This is why we have to keep fighting for all Black womxn, alongside continuing to fight for Taylor and the authorship of her personhood as an individual with agency.

— An edited excerpt from Black Meme: A History of the Images that Make Us by Legacy Russell. Listen to Legacy in conversation with Fred Moten on the Verso Podcast.

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Black Meme
In BLACK MEME, Legacy Russell, awardwinning author of the groundbreaking GLITCH FEMINISM, explores the “meme” as mapped to Black visual culture from 1900 to the present, mining both archival and co...

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