Mass Consumption of Black Death Won't Make Us Free

by Jenn M. Jackson

Black Death, especially in the case of lynchings, has always been a public matter in America.

In the Post-Reconstruction Era, many White families would pack sack lunches and bring the entire family for day-long lynching events. The spectacles would be catalogued in photographic images then mass produced as postcards. Then, when technological advancements allowed for motion pictures, these public displays of Black Death were packaged and shipped across the country as a marketing tool for the cinema industry. Today, we see much the same process of the commodification and mass consumption of Black Death and lynchings in mainstream news and social media. It wasn’t mean to make us free then. It certainly isn’t meant to do so now.

By definition, “lynching” does not only entail the act of hanging someone until they die. Rather, as Jackie Goldsby explains in A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature, the term originated as a way to describe the heinous and extra-legal acts of terror against White men before the Civil War. Over time, it came to denote the brutality of lashings and other corporal punishments inflicted upon enslaved Africans and African Americans. Between 1880 and 1930, when over 3,000 Black Americans were killed, the term “lynching” became synonymous with the public hangings, burnings, and other ruthless acts of murder against Blacks in society.

Understood in this historical frame, the lynching of Black people has evolved into a core theme in American life. And, while our conception of the term “lynching” has changed over time, its primary function in American society has remained intact. Public lynchings of Black people and the ever presence of Black Death have always worked to strengthen White Supremacy, fear, and racial animus towards Blacks. These events are not just tragedies. They are also opportunities for White Supremacy and racism to reproduce themselves.

Recently, in the case of the Emanuel Nine, who were murdered in cold blood by a White terrorist as they prayed, the media took an approach of reverence and respect for those who were taken from us. Reverend Clementa Pinckney, perhaps the most well-known victim of this vicious crime, was lauded and celebrated at his memorial service where President Obama actually sang “Amazing Grace” in his honor. For many Black people watching this very public event, it was a moment of cultural pride. It gave many Black Americans – who are often denied public citizenship – just a few moments to mourn freely. For many Black folks, this public event was a moment of humanity.

Conversely, it doesn’t take much effort to tease out how this event was consumed and interpreted by White and other non-Black people. The overwhelming media narrative surrounding the victims at Emanuel AME Church was one of forgiveness. A sentiment meant to cleanse Whites of any lingering guilt or accountability for the massacre itself, this emotion reinforced White Supremacy. The narrative implies that Whites are always forgivable, pure, and capable of redemption. Even while Black Americans looked on in reverence and sadness at the home going of Reverend Pinckney and those who were killed at Emanuel AME Church, many White Americans filtered the event through systems of denial and privilege making those deaths both necessary to the authority of whiteness and undermining for Black humanity.

The memorial for those killed in the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church is situated amongst many images of Black lynchings and death which are exploited in order to reinforce existing structures of racism in this country.The video of a White male police officer in McKinney, Texas yanking a young Black woman’s braids, throwing her to the ground in anger, and pressing his knees into her back is a mass consumed image of Black lynching.The many still, audio, and video images of unarmed Black people who have been murdered, intimidated, maimed, or brutalized by police officers and other American citizens are commodified versions of Black lynchings and death. To see them as anything else is to believe a lie.Their ubiquity, at this moment in history, points to the fact that Black Death and public lynchings of Black people have become so common, so visible, that they are becoming invisible.They are literally sewn into modern American society.

The logical question is simply: Why do the lynchings of Black people and the consistent presence of Black Death underlie so much of society today? Goldsby sums it up saying that lynchings are “shocking and ordinary, unexpected and predictable, fantastic and normal, horrifying and banal.” In essence, Black Death keeps happening and continues to be consumed because it is what we have always done. Public lynchings of Black people are so embedded in American life that we are, at least in part, defined by them. In some way, what it means to be Black is wrapped up in the persistence of Black Death and public lynchings of Black people. The same goes for whiteness. Whiteness only exists because of blackness. Therefore, White life is inherently dependent upon Black Death.

Sadly, ignoring the images and avoiding the videos won’t do much to eradicate the systems of oppression which feed off of them. In moments like these, we must identify and name the structures which seek to exploit and mass consume Black Death and public lynchings of Black people if we hope to dismantle them. That is the only way to set us free from the constraints of White Supremacy.

Photo: Shutterstock

Jenn M. Jackson is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She is also the Editor-in-Chief and co-founder of Water Cooler Convos, a politics, news, and culture webmag for bourgie Black nerds. For more about her, tweet her at @JennMJack or visit her website at

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