restricted access Trayvon Martin, Topdog/Underdog, and the Tragedy Trap
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Trayvon Martin, Topdog/Underdog, and the Tragedy Trap

At the 2016 Grammy Awards, to the bluesy whine of the saxophone, Kendrick Lamar shuffled onstage, handcuffed, feet shackled to the dancers behind him. The saxophone hushed as he listed to the side, wrapping his chains around the microphone, their clinking loud in the uneasy silence before the percussive crash of the first lyric of "Blacker the Berry" (2015): "I'm the biggest hypocrite of 2015." Lamar's visual invocation of the history of black bondage and mass incarceration juxtaposed with his proclamation of personal hypocrisy evoked the public debate over the song's politics: to the ire of many listeners and fellow rappers, the song's declaration of black self-love in the face of lethal racism is undercut by its critique of black-on-black violence. "So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? / When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me? / Hypocrite!" the song ends.1 In his Grammy performance, however, Lamar eliminated these controversial lyrics, including instead a variation of "Alright" (2015), the song that has become the unofficial anthem of Black Lives Matter protestors around the country. "On February 26th I lost my life too," he rapped toward the close, lit in the dark by a single spotlight, "That was me yelling for help while he drowned in his blood / Why didn't he defend himself? / Why didn't he throw a punch?"2

Lamar's oscillating lyrical revisions of possible relations to Martin's death—from self-condemnation to total identification [End Page 753] with Martin's dying body to helpless victim-blaming—might key us to what Lauren Berlant has marked as the waning of genre in neoliberalism, the idea that "life can no longer be lived even phantasmatically as melodrama, as Aristotelian tragedy spread to ordinary people, as a predictable arc that is shaped by acts, facts, or fates" ("Thinking" 7). Lamar's lyrical shifts speak to the difficulty of finding a narrative form or position to account for, and to call into account, contemporary acts of antiblack racism. Nevertheless, the narratives of black-on-black violence conjured by the original lyrics of "Blacker the Berry," as well as the poses of heroic identification and tragic victimhood stirred by Lamar's Grammy revisions, mark the pernicious persistence of genre's power in neoliberalism's ongoing biopolitical project of surveilling, ordering, devaluing, and valuing populations. Scientists and economists have deployed genres like tragedy and parable, as Rob Nixon has suggested, to justify the privatization and dispossession of the commons. Meanwhile, white heterosexual male lives and white American or European lives, as opposed to Arab or Indigenous or black lives, continue to be imagined as valuable, their deaths cast as "tragic" and grievable.3 If genre is waning as a form for explaining ordinary affects, it endures as a cudgel of state and economic violence.

This essay follows these scholars in examining the use of the genre of tragedy in neoliberal times, taking it up in particular as it has been deployed to secure what Khalil Gibran Muhammad calls the "ideological currency of black criminality" (3). While similarly informed by Raymond Williams's sense of the importance of considering the relation between literary and vernacular nomenclatures of tragedy, this approach runs somewhat askew of recent accounts of the relationship between tragedy and the black radical tradition.4 Rather than adopt a critical perspective oriented around tragedy, or explore the tragic orientation of black radicalism and anticolonial movements, I examine how tragedy in the post-Civil Rights era is a toxic racial narrative with which racial justice movements and black expressive culture must contend. As Sandy Alexandre has explained, we might do well to imagine bad racial narratives as stories that harden through use, accumulating until they crush people with their terrible weight. But violent racial narratives' tangibility is also, Alexandre reminds, "evidence of their eventual demise," the potential for them "to be transformed into an object that can eventually explode" ("Black Lives"). [End Page 754]

Accordingly, I trace the circulation of racial narratives of tragedy in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin's murder to theorize the...


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