Choreographies of the OngoingEpisodes of Black Life, Events of Black Lives
In this essay, I weave personal narratives together with "public" events to theorize the complex feelings of regularly encountering spaces of black death and trauma. To do so, I use the concept of "episodic events" to collapse distinctions between memorable events and the quiet passage of nondescript episodes in order to push us to think about the grief that stains and strains the lifeworlds of people most invested in Black Lives Matter. In doing so, the essay meditates on the stakes of Black life, constituted by an intimacy with the environment that makes the scenes of events, no matter the scale, part of one's daily episodes. Attention to Black life in the political era of Black lives means that we consider the forms of intimacy beyond racial kinship that do not allow for the symbolic signification that happens when we are moved by the atrocity happening to the person central to the racial event. Thus by contending with the "afterlives" of black murder, this essay attempts to deal with the visceral of the episodic, the ongoingness, the living-through that is often sidelined, if considered at all, in the tight focus of the juridical promise of the event.
episodic event 1—cleveland, ohio, post-january 31, 1983
By the time autumn settles on the city and all of the leaves descend to the base of the tree that bore them, you can see a building from our home's back porch. Filled with two hundred twenty-one units at sixteen stories high, Wade Park Apartments peaks above barren trees and rooftops, glaring down at our home. Most times, this brick and concrete structure goes rather unnoticed. It's part of the neighborhood's landscape. But when we are assailed by the cutting reminder that on one of those floors, my father's sister, Ann, was murdered over thirty years ago, the building becomes a specter. For me, the reminder comes randomly. Sometimes, it's how one of the windows throws back the rays of the sun. Sometimes, the building appears particularly massive when I drive past. I can't say how my other relatives receive the reminders. We rarely discuss her murder, and we reference the building even less. But I know none of us consider the building as neutral ground. We can't.
I was born and raised on Cleveland's east side, in a home built off the main street of Wade Park Avenue. My father's mother purchased the home in 1966, and, in its backyard during that same year, my father challenged his older brother to a fight. Defending Ann from their brother's constant bullying, my father, then a skinny fourteen-year-old kid, deftly dodged punches powerful enough to give air sound. Seventeen years later, in 1983, my father would have to travel to the coroner's office to identify Ann's body. In the hallway of the building that loomed over my father's adolescent gesture of protection and stares down on our backyard still, Ann would be stabbed thirteen times by a woman with whom she shared girlhood crushes and teenage squabbles. No one would open their door, under politics of "that got nothing [End Page 760] to do with me," and Ann would stumble into one of the stairwells where she would eventually lay down, drowning on her blood. Maybe she could have been saved if someone had called the paramedics. Maybe not. But in those fateful moments, there was no one to protect her from another woman's anger who, with the help of a male partner who restrained Ann, unleashed thirteen metallic blows through the flesh of a woman known to keep alcohol as a close companion.
The Call and Post, Cleveland's Black-interest newspaper, covered Ann's death, using numbers to quantify the severity of her murder: the stab wounds, doors knocked on in an attempt to garner help, the estimated hours passed before her final breath, the estimated hours passed before someone discovered her body (I sometimes wonder who that person was and how they encountered stairwells thereafter). The numbers, inconsistent across the three articles dedicated to her murder, neatly package the end of her life with enough space to share the other happenings involving or pertaining to Black Clevelanders in the winter of 1983. Murdered at thirty-three, Eula Mae Williams, known to everyone as Ann, lived a regular life that would spark little interest outside of those intimately connected to her. And for those who did not know her in life, she held the brief interest of a jury, judge, and prosecutor as they turned to the other official document encompassing her life: the coroner's report, which "answers" the where, the what, and the when.1 It is integral to murder cases in which the objectivity and expertise of science are wielded to prove or refute culpability. It also represents, as Katherine McKittrick writes, the "[b]reathless, archival numerical evidence" that our socio-legal system relies upon, which has the effect of "affirming the knowable (black objecthood) and disguising the untold (black human being)" ("Mathematics" 16–17). Coroners' reports, however, are subject to human error and are constrained by current technological advancements and cultural stances. What coroners' reports do not have room for is the untold, which actually refers to the told that goes unheard in such forms of official reportage. If the reports made space for such information, it would have possibly included that Ann loved to clean as much as she loved a good time. That she cared for many children although she was unable to carry any of hers to full term. That she had eight siblings, one of whom fought for her constantly. And the one who fought for her was the same one who confirmed the identity of her body for the coroner. I can only imagine how my father articulated the confirmation, for that, too, is irrelevant for an archival record of that kind. "Yes, that's her," he may have said. Or maybe he said nothing. Maybe his body stiffened or wobbled at the sight of his sister on a metal bed, and that told the coroner, well-practiced in seeing the initial shock of traumatic encounters, all he or she needed to know. [End Page 761] I could ask my father about that moment, but, to be honest, I won't. I'm braver to imagine these matters than I am to ask my father. The personal can be easier to write about than to live.
episodic event 2—st. louis, missouri, september 22, 2016
An estimated four hundred people gather in the lobby of the Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis (CAM). The audience greatly exceeds the space's capacity, so people stand in the aisles, along the back walls, or on the overlooking balcony. Those with healthy knee joints choose to sit on the concrete floor. I'm one of the lucky few who came a bit early and was able to find a seat made of the material that forces you to sit still or else you will become a magnetic force field, shocking anyone you touch. The audience, primarily Black and Brown, have come to witness and engage with a panel of Black-identified artists and scholars, convened to discuss the work of Kelley Walker, whose portraits and sculptures temporarily reside in the gallery on the other side of the lobby. Walker is a white artist who creates digital reproductions of photographs and reconstructs modern technology. The convening focuses on two of his series, Aquafresh plus Crest with Whitening Expressions and Black Star Press. Or, more specifically, the convening focuses on Walker's refusal to explain the impetus of his work, and his defensive stance against being asked to do so. Aquafresh comprises blown-up reproductions of select covers from Vibe, a hip-hop magazine that often featured Black women—typically R&B and hip-hop musicians, and "video girls" who inspired some of the raunchier lyrics and set Black beauty standards—as the cover girls. In Walker's pieces, digital reproductions of toothpaste are smeared over the covers, resembling an opaque white ejaculate. And in Black Star Press, Walker digitally smeared chocolate over images of white police officers in 1963 attacking Black civil rights protestors with German shepherds, billy clubs, and high-powered water hoses. From a distance, it's hard to discern if the smears are those of chocolate or excrement.
Two weeks before the panel, CAM held a talk-back featuring Walker who, after being asked by local Black artist Damon Davis to explain the intention behind his work, bumbled through a response before finally throwing the responsibility to the audience, saying that it was up to them to interpret the pieces. Other local Black artists and the audience made their infuriation known at both the talk-back and the subsequent panel discussion. Some of the panelists mapped their disgust onto the nature of the art, stating that the pieces continued to traffic in genealogies of white men objectifying Black women and belittling violence against Black men. For others, their primary anger lay in the artist's entitlement to alter photographs of sexualized Black [End Page 762] women and Black protestors without accounting for racial politics and representation and then to grow indignant after being questioned. That the exhibit happened in a St. Louis museum further exacerbated their outrage. The city has always been a hotbed of racial violence, judicially and physically.2 However, its proximity to the northern suburb of Ferguson has made it a critical site in the trajectory of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, transforming the St. Louis area into a geographic index of Black precarity, Black death, and systemic oppression. Consequently, Walker's exhibition, which had been shown for years in various galleries throughout the country, took on a distinct disrespect. Racial tensions between Blacks and whites are on the tips of everyone's tongues. And with the slightest provocation, the tongues will lash. So, for Kelley Walker to have the audacity to be offended that he, as a white artist, would have to explain his work that literally smears oral products that resemble bodily excretions on made images of Black bodies? No, that is not going to fly in a place like St. Louis.
St. Louis has been imprinted by the scene and aftermath—affective and visceral—of the murder of Michael Brown, Jr. (nationally known as "Mike Brown," locally known as "Mike Mike"). Drive along Union Avenue, one of the city's main streets, and you'll see "Hands Up! Don't Shoot!" spray-painted on the sides of commercial buildings or on abandoned residential homes. These four words riff on the instructions, the plea, the declaration that Mike Brown shouted at the police: "I don't have a gun. Stop shooting." As a Black man who stood six foot four and weighed two hundred ninety-two pounds, Brown's verbal announcement did nothing to convince officer Darren Wilson that he could be anything but dangerous. His raised hands to demonstrate he held no weapon did nothing to convince officer Darren Wilson that he could be anything but dangerous. Being imagined as much as it is materialized, danger, often, gets secured on to bodies. So Mike Brown's declaration/plea/announcement meant nothing anyway. And officer Darren Wilson let everyone know it meant nothing when he pulled his gun's trigger multiple times, eight of the bullets ripping through Mike Brown. His body, facedown on Canfield Drive, baked for four hours under the Missouri sun in August. Have you experienced the direct beams of an August high-noon sun in Missouri? It's relentless. Yet by dusk, the vibrant wake of the sun rests into majestic hues that collide, melt into each other, and celebrate the cool end of violently hot days. The sun went from overpowering source to a pastel collage on August 9, 2014, the day Lezley McSpadden wanted nothing more than to scoop her son up from the eyes, gasps, and vulnerability of the street. But she had to wait. Everyone in the neighborhood had to. Her son's body marked the center of a crime scene, and it took coroners four hours to come to officially mark the [End Page 763] spot as such. And he, Mike Brown, another statistic, another number, another Black mathematic "lucky" enough to be given a name. Like the sun's rotation, the presumption of Black aggression that justifies fatal acts in the name of self-defense is repetitious.
You can feel the deep impressions of Mike Brown's murder, which was about him and more than him, and the riots that ensued in the city and echoed across the country. And in the lobby of CAM, on September 22, 2016, where artists, scholars, activists, and residents assembled together to discuss the limits of art and the rights of artists to treat Black bodies as found objects, such impressions were expressed as anger and fatigue. With a slow blink that the shake of her head matched, one of the panelists admitted that "she just couldn't anymore," when faced with the ubiquitous murder of Black people justified as self-defense. There is an instinct within our bodies to self-protect. Fight or flight is what medical professionals colloquially name it. Although fight and flight appear to signal specific actions, they actually speak to a plethora of reactions. Thus, sometimes, the flight is a caving inward that brings the body to the ground. Sometimes the fight is a stomping in place. And other times, flight and fight collapse into each other, coming across outwardly as withdrawal. Just getting through the day is all you can work to count on. The going numb, vocalized as "I just couldn't anymore," is but one example that fellow panelists and large segments of the audience understood in their slow, affirmative nods. Sometimes, the acutely felt renders us numb. This numbness doesn't equate to detachment. Rather, trauma can shock us to stillness if it's routine enough.
I named the aforementioned vignettes "episodic events" to reference articulations of slow death. Typically, structural inequalities are based upon sociological constructions that focus primarily on the spectacular events that clearly mark life and death. Slow death, however, offers another conceptual aperture to illumine the quotidian nature of living through the effects of systemic deficits. My use of "episodic event" draws specifically from Lauren Berlant, who distinguishes "episode" from "event" to unpack the political and affective permutations of slow death. She defines event as "a genre calibrated according to the intensities and kinds of impact" (759). This genre is easy to remember. In fact, many events come to prescribe temporality, becoming affixed to "pre" and "post," such as "post-9/11," "pre-Katrina," and, fittingly for this essay, "post-Ferguson" to refer to Mike Brown's murder and its aftermath. Often, events bespeak a larger collective that is, more or less, organized around a common narrative that highlights the people, locations, and actions deemed significant. The opposite of the event is the episode, which Berlant [End Page 764] describes as the "ongoingness, getting by, and living on, where the structural inequalities are dispersed" … "often in phenomena not prone to capture by a consciousness organized by archives of memorable impact" (759). For Berlant, episodes constitute the "environment" that contains the practices under which repetition of structural inequities occur. Covert and ubiquitous, episodes, like their televisual referent, are the constituent elements that make up the series of one's life. The mundane acts of waiting for the bus, scrolling through one's phone to pass the time, the conversations and pleasantries sprinkled throughout the day all fall under episodes.
My specific use of "episodic event" aims to collapse further distinctions between memorable events and the quiet passage of nondescript episodes. For many, trauma marks the ongoing. For example, the Wade Park Apartments is both the geographic backdrop to my family's home and the site of a traumatic event that spiraled through my family and completely changed our lives. Embedded in our immediate environments are sites that simultaneously index traumatic events and the mundane episodes that cover all the random moments that make us laugh, cry, or feel nothing. Episodic events account for the explosive, ongoing nature that differently seeps into our thoughts, regularly changing how we process them. This concept aligns with Black feminist articulations—most notably those of Katherine McKittrick and Saidiya Hartman—that demonstrate how the weight of Black subjection, although predictable, never becomes naturalized. The panelist who expressed her rage over the acquittal of Darren Wilson as a necessary shutdown because she "just couldn't anymore" illustrates this idea. In other words, being well aware of the devaluation of Black lives meant that Wilson's acquittal was no surprise to her. Nevertheless, it remains an expected outcome that continues to shock.
Thinking of the inhabited worlds of Black folks as episodic events points us to a tension that erupts in the political demands of Black Lives Matter, particularly those organized around police brutality. I focus here on the attempts of BLM to garner justice for the Black lives rendered useless or at fault for their murder at the hands of law enforcement or for the sake of maintaining legal order for a couple of reasons. The first articulates a tension wherein BLM must rely on the mandates of juridical procedure that requires "evidence" to prove culpability or innocence. The reliance on physical evidence, on which the injured/dead Black body is crucial, however, affirms Myisha Priest's contention of "how the use of the injured black body both as factual foundation that supports and extends the privileges of whiteness and as primal ground of black subjectivity dooms the effort to achieve justice on behalf of injured blackness" (3). For American justice systems, claims of injury are mediated through the discourse of the event that transposes moments into [End Page 765] neat timelines and encounters into mapped locations. This transposition aids in the conundrum of the injured Black body as "object and subject of national grief," which, as Priest notes, means "the impossibility of taking on that grief when who is mourning and what is being mourned for are contingent and conflicted" (3).
The second reason turns to the public who is greatly moved by the campaigns against extrajudicial killings of Black people. As an organization "guided by the fact that all Black lives matter, regardless of actual or perceived sexual identity, gender identity, gender expression, economic status, ability, disability, religious beliefs or disbeliefs, immigration status, or location," BLM states that it "goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes" despite emerging from and coalescing around the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown ("What We Believe"). Explicitly clarifying its aim to go beyond police violence hearkens to BLM's commitment of not repeating the exclusionary tactics of previous Black liberation movements that pushed forward leaders who identified as and who were proponents of Black masculinist ideals of the "Black family," thereby muffling the concerns of people not fitting into such heteronormative molds. Composed of regional chapters to address localized realities, BLM pushes for greater investment in public schools, organizes "Emotional Emancipation Circles,"3 and fights to end the bail system that financially and emotionally drains poor people. Yet, in its attempts for inclusivity, BLM campaigns still become nationally yoked to stories of police violence against, mostly, young Black men in urban areas. The reasons for this yoking are beyond the scope of this essay. Maybe it's the gripping spectacle of murder. Maybe it's the finality of death. Or maybe organizers for BLM still need to search for that "in" that will rally larger gatherings for dismal medical facilities and public transportation. I don't know. …
But to return to the "afterlives" of Black murder, this essay is an attempt to deal with the visceral of the episodic, the ongoingness, the living-through that is often sidelined, if considered at all, in the tight focus of the juridical promise of the event. A major contention of this essay is that the event reduces life to the live, which has the generalizing quality that enables mobilizable campaigns. As the movement fights along avenues of social justice, focus on the events of Black lives is the most logical approach. But this is a double-edged sword, since the terms of the logic index Western, heteronormative, masculinist ideals that define the possessive individual who creates and is protected by current systems of justice. In short, justice was never made to grant Blacks "justice," and it remains steadfast to that founding commitment of juridical disenfranchisement. This fact propels BLM organizers and members to undertake the risks that have landed many in jail, teared their eyes with pepper [End Page 766] spray, caused them to lose jobs and housing, and made them recipients of death threats. Nonetheless, this essay pushes us to think about the grief that stains and strains the lifeworlds of people most invested in Black Lives Matter. In doing so, the essay meditates on the stakes of Black life, constituted by an intimacy with the environment that makes the scenes of events, no matter the scale, part of one's daily episodes. Attention to Black life in the political era of Black lives means that we consider the forms of intimacy beyond racial kinship that does not allow for the symbolic signification that happens when we are moved by the atrocity happening to the person central to the racial event. By no means am I proposing that racial kinship induces false or damaging forms of intimacy and community. Quite the opposite. But we must remember that for those who personally knew Trayvon Martin, he is more than the way he was killed. For them, his name and image incite memories of the mundane, making Skittles an episodic event each time they encounter the colorful packaging.
the event of black lives, or, for the imagined kin we name chiron
Those who have seen the cinematic beauty that is Moonlight will recognize Chiron as the name of the main character whose search for love is captured through three distinct periods of his life: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. In Barry Jenkins's film, adapted from Terrell McCraney's play, Chiron has deep emotional wounds that fester all the more because the two men who understand him the most are unable to do so endlessly or openly. One of them dies, and the other caves to demands for the violent showcasing of masculinist norms. Along with Chiron's soft brilliance and intensity, the film does a beautiful job of portraying crushingly impoverished Black neighborhoods that remain open to ocean breezes and the deep connections ignited from having someone randomly brush past. In the ghettos of Miami, Chiron embodies the solemnity and playfulness of moonlight that make Black boys look blue. Interestingly enough, Chiron is also a Greek centaur who, despite possessing incredible powers of healing, died because he could not heal his own mortal wound. In astronomy, there is a comet or minor planet whose orbit creates an infinity around Saturn and Uranus, moving just outside the gravitational pull of either planet, refusing to become a moon. Scientists came upon it in 1971 and named it Chiron. The comet has come to play a significant role in astrology with its placement in one's natal chart, exposing the person's deepest spiritual or emotional wound. Not cursed like the centaur of its naming, one can heal from this wound, but only through sustained attention from having its dressing replaced constantly. It never scabs over. [End Page 767]
What Chiron, both the subject of Moonlight and of Greek mythology, comes to illustrate is the act and the subject that centers the events of Black Lives Matter. Kevin Quashie addresses the publicness of Blackness, stating how "black subjectivity exists for its social and political meaningfulness rather than as a marker of the human individuality of the person who is black. As an identity," he asserts, "blackness is always supposed to tell us something about race or racism, or about America, or violence and struggle and triumph or poverty and hopefulness" (4). Capturing the essential wound of the creation, maintenance, and expansion of the United States, Black lives, or what Quashie refers to as Black subjectivity, embody barometric features. As the nation's canaries, Black lives lend themselves to the iconic, which, as Nicole Fleetwood demonstrates, has positive and negative implications. "The icon," Fleetwood writes, "is rooted in a desire to represent, and thus produce, God" (5). The act to represent God, however, has always been fraught with suspicion as being "a mode of deification that involves finding the godlikeness in human form" (7). Consequently, debates around iconicity oscillate between celebrations of veneration and accusations of idolatry through which objects are worshipped, thus denigrating the relationship one is to have with God. Bringing its original religious meanings to the discourse and realities of Blackness, a term that inheres in defamation, Fleetwood argues, "Racial iconicity hinges on a relationship between veneration and denigration and this twinning shapes the visual production and reception of black American icons." As a cultural signifier with unstable meanings in any given historical moment, the racial icon, Fleetwood suggests, offers itself "as a visual embodiment of American history and as proof of the supremacy of American democracy" (8). She takes her readings to various Black icons whose bodies signify different forms of currency, one of them being Trayvon Martin. Iconized to a selfie in which he dons a black hoodie, "Martin's image," Fleetwood notes, "moves through various locations and media platforms. Martin circulates as material object, viral transmission, traumatic wound, and historical fact" (30). As the first case BLM organizers successfully brought to national attention, Martin became our Chiron.
Others have wondered about the lived implications of building racial kinship around events that garner a racial Chiron. In 1994, two years after many Black Los Angeles residents unfurled their anger on the city following the acquittal of four officers who used excessive force on Rodney King, future poet laureate Elizabeth Alexander struggled to find a language for "my people." Attracted to the strong group affiliations that surface when blacks utter "my people," Alexander also meditated on the social and psychic effects when the stories, images, and memories that connect Black people's imagined [End Page 768] communities are similar to that of the eighty-one-second home video that filmed four police officers viciously beating one man while others stood watch. "What do black people say to each other," Alexander ponders, "to describe their relationship to their racial group, when that relationship is crucially forged by incidents of physical and psychic violence which boil down to the 'fact' of abject blackness?" (78).
Highlighting "fact" is key, as it contends with the objects and practices through which abject blackness is materialized and reiterated in the judicial order that transfers into our daily spheres. Referring to the constant circulation of video and audio capture of violence against Black bodies—for Alexander, it is the repetition and slowing down, frame by frame, of four police officers viciously beating Rodney King—Saidiya Hartman proves instructive, noting the "problematic of enjoyment in which [white] pleasure is inseparable from [Black] subjection, will indistinguishable from submission, and bodily integrity bound to violence" (Scenes of Subjection 33). Placed into the context of the American legal system, in which its enforcement has long been peopled by members of the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Council, and the definition of citizenship and the reaches of liberal individualism have been set along the lines of white access and Black denial, the rhetoric and very practices of American justice have been sutured to Black objecthood. Black folks know well the convergence between documented "evidence" and phenomenological knowing that does not lean upon evidence. In fact, it's a knowing that occurs in spite of respected evidence. This is a knowing that mediates Black life and Black living.
choreographies of the ongoing
"The white man's threats and fears have never been lost on the black people," Maya Angelou observed at George Jackson's funeral in 1971. San Quentin prison guards shot and killed Jackson, a Black Panther and one of the "Soledad Brothers," after he attempted a jailbreak.4 As many Blacks and a few whites gathered under the harsh August sun of southern California to mourn the loss of their brother, Angelou writes of the "nightmarish sense of déjà vu in the atmosphere. A feeling that all the happenings, the words, the shufflings, the edgings forward and movings back had been done on this very street since life began" (6). The repetitious movements, seemingly choreographed, speak to the utopic sense of oneness that happens when people come together to cast similar feelings toward a similar subject or object. Here, Jackson is both the subject (he was a man who had family and lived a life) and object (the lost brother who people equally mourned, whether they knew him personally or knew him as a man who so loved black freedom, he sacrificed his life for [End Page 769] it). A "having been here before for someone who could have been my brother or sister," and a "will come here again for someone who could be my brother or sister," the continual loss of Black life Angelou paints at Jackson's funeral makes the sun most merciless. As white men's fear and threats become part of the discourse and protections of the willful subject or citizen, commonly known as self-defense, the sun sits there, selfishly centered, and does nothing to ease the pain and frustrations of those gathered. In fact, it magnifies everything with growing intensity. But the visceral pain is not all that Angelou points out to show how whiteness is not lost on Blacks: it's the absence of surprise. "Wonder had been scraped away by the ceaseless repetitions of the scene too many years" (4). What Angelou importantly points out is another choreography of knowing that marks Black intimacy around Black lives: the expectation that justice will never be delivered. And if "justice," whatever that means in the moment, is known to be elusive for Blacks, so, too, is the corporeal knowledge that funerals for Black people killed by the mighty bite of justice will continue. This knowing is part of the knowing of Black intimacy. It looks like the eulogies of brothers and sisters, known personally or not. It looks like the Black citizens of Webb, Mississippi, who, during J. W. Millam and Roy Bryant's 1955 trial for the abduction and murder of Emmett Till, left the courtroom the moment jurors were released to deliberate a verdict. They already knew the verdict, and their choreographed exit instructed Mamie Till Bradley that she should make an early exit, too. It looks like numbness. It looks like shaking your head and trying to keep about your day when you learn that Darren Wilson was acquitted. It looks like quick, staccato movements that hurl objects through windows, the screams that break through space until the throat burns, and the burning of sage while standing stock still in front of a fleet of armed police officers. If Blackness has been defined by a vibrant liveliness, the expectation that "our people" will not receive justice also constitutes Blackness.
Visceral modes to cope come to another breaking point when such modes of survival are triggered through mortal geographies—the sites, images, and things that remind us of the potential brevity of our life. Mortal geographies encompass both the scene where you first learned of the murder of a person who will not, most likely, receive justice, and the scene you daily pass in quotidian practice. But might we find a bit of possibility by rethinking the "scene" that marks subjection? By delinking "scene" from its singular tense that may presuppose and privilege the singular "encounter," there's possibility to think of the ongoing nature of Black life that is both reverent and suspicious of defining the value of a life at its tragic end, such that it becomes the flattened number that McKittrick names as an archival violation of Blackness. [End Page 770] In other words, rethinking "scene" can push us toward Hartman's assertion of the ongoing nature of violence in Black life that, nonetheless, refuses to delimit that life to its violent end.
Aiyana Stanley-Jones of Detroit, Michigan. Seven years old. Fatally shot in the head on May 16, 2010, as she slept on her grandmother's, Mertilla Jones's, couch. The gun was fired by officer Joseph Weekley who, along with other SWAT members and the film crew for the hit real-life crime show 48 Hours, burst through Jones's front door because she was, allegedly, harboring a fugitive. Her son. Weekley's defense for the misfire was, of course, self-defense. He claimed that Jones, who was sleeping on the floor next to the couch, attempted to grab his gun, causing it to fire and hit the sleeping girl. Jones claims that she was attempting to grab her granddaughter, a reasonable reflex reaction and maternal instinct to protect the child after the surprise of being violently awoken in the middle of the night. But Weekley was working on instinct, too: the instinct to discharge bullets at any uninstructed movement. He was breaking down the doors of a Black home, in a Black neighborhood that allegedly contains a Black criminal. A Black woman's quickly grabbing for her child falls under suspicious movement, and thus, gives officers the right to self-protect on any ground. Even if that ground is a woman's living room. Christina Sharpe connects versions of stories like this to the "vague furtive movements" police name when they do stop and frisk. She asserts that "whatever furtive movements are or are not, any movements while black may be interpreted as furtive" (830).
During Weekley's trial, Jones sat on the stand to deliver her testimony. During questioning, she breaks the disciplined conversation between her and the attorney. From Jones's shaking body and muffled cries, she wails "oh God," "oh man," "oh Jesus." Then, as a refrain, she asks, "Why he kill her? Why he do that?" She then directs the question to Weekley, demanding to know why he would kill a sleeping child. He meets her with deadpan eyes and remains still as the bailiff escorts Jones out of the courtroom. Out of the camera's view, the cries of someone else comes through. Walking toward the exit, Jones voices to Weekley the recurring nightmare of grief that refuses to be forgotten or restrained: "I gets no sleep! I get flashbacks! I wouldn't wish that on nobody, not even you!" A question I've posed elsewhere is, "For Jones, like so many Black mothers, where the site of grief is her living room, her front porch, the corner of her street, what 'equipment' does she need to handle the post-traumatic stress of having witnessed her grandchild's murder?" (17–18).
Weekley shot and killed Aiyana on her grandmother's living room couch, located in the "front" room, in which Jones presumably entertained and, at least for that night, used as the sleeping quarters she shared with her [End Page 771] granddaughter. Bursting through the doors of a home to re-perform action scenes of cops' finding "bad guys," aiming to glue viewers to their seats and boost ratings, Joseph Weekley experienced deadly paranoia that he felt no need to check because he was in someone's home in the middle of the night. He transformed Mertilla Jones's living room into an "archival hauntopia." Writing of dance techniques and practices as types of archives that store pleasurable and traumatic memories, performance scholar Judith Hamera considers the relationship between haunting, location, bodily practice, and memory. While the "taxing, relentless, affective labors of technique often lend themselves to hagiography, to hero stories of what performance overcomes," Hamera reminds us that performance is "just as likely to succumb to exhaustion, to deep personal anguish … and to the memories it has deployed as both blessing and goad" (139).
If our bodies store memories that have been "deployed as both blessing and goad," then our bodily encounters with particular locations act as keys that release fragments, haunting us. "Objects and words," Michel de Certeau contends, "also have hollow places in which a past sleeps. … It is striking here that the places people live in are like the presences of diverse absences" (108). Existences of diverse absences could also be called hauntings for which ghosts serve as the sign. Avery Gordon offers, "the way of the ghost is haunting, and haunting is a very particular way of knowing what has happened or is happening. Being haunted draws us affectively, sometimes against our will and always a bit magically into the structure of feeling of a reality we come to experience, not as cold knowledge, but as a transformative recognition" (8). Haunting speaks to the sense of déjà vu among Black mourners who attended George Jackson's funeral. Haunting is affective, experiential, and always locative. It can be said that hauntings are one way to describe how we carry locations, how we carry geographies. The hollow places in words and objects are the space into which memories flood. It is a flooding that disrupts daily attempts to retreat from the world. "I gets no sleep." It is also a flooding that re-marks geographies as recitations of what used to be here and what someone used to do there. Of things no longer seen, de Certeau writes, "Demonstratives indicate the invisible identities of the visible: it is the very definition of a place, in fact, that it is composed by these series of displacements and effects among the fragmented strata that form it and that it plays on these moving layers" (108). The violent acts that bound scenes of trauma are differently embedded in the everyday for those who were part of the intimate circle of the murdered Black life. In other words, as one of the Black lives lost to police violence, the site of Jones's living room is confined to the scene of reckless endangerment that a police officer committed. Yet, for Jones and the family [End Page 772] and friends who lived in or frequented the home and knew Aiyana in life, that living room, that couch, is both a site of murder and a site that erupts with memories of Aiyana playing, napping, talking. It invokes an episodic event at Jones's front door.
Riding through Cleveland, I look at the city through my mother's eyes—particularly the south side of the city, where the imprint of Cleveland's industrial past lies heavy. A rare hilly area in an otherwise flat Midwestern city, the south side is filled with decaying factories, extant bridges that for the most part are in need of deep repair, and open fields that serve as the graveyard for torn-down buildings and homes that were never rebuilt. According to my mother, this geography offered a prime place for people to discard slain bodies. As we would ride through her childhood neighborhood, typically to get to some other destination, my mother would point out where a friend's house once stood, that a now-condemned corner store once held a thriving "mom and pop" business, and where a crime involving a friend or family member happened. For the latter, the sites of fatal violence often included a joyous or mundane memory. Thus, while a friend was murdered there, it was also the space where she and that same friend listened to Bobby Womack's latest single, or where they and others ate nickel bags of potato chips that, unlike now, were not half-filled with air. Intermixed with memories of joy and pain, these are the ways she marked geographies throughout Cleveland. The hauntings invoked by her memories were always entangled with its ongoing nature that complicates how she felt and how I, then, saw them. A shaman isn't always needed to divine spirits. It's a doing of Black life.
A markedly different perspective engenders "new black geographies" attuned to what Hershini Bhana Young describes as the "clamor of ghostly bodies layered like a palimpsest over one another or by surrounding the depths of spaces that are seemingly silent" (50). Likened to clamorous noises and crowded presence, Black life lays bare the hauntings that hover, pulsate, and envelop the very grounds, sounds, sights, and scents we daily encounter. Black life offers insight into the "spatial continuity between the living and the dead, between science and storytelling, between past and present" that McKittrick discusses in her rumination on "plantation futures" (3). McKittrick and Young push against assumptions of flatness and knowability in their use of "geography" and "spatiality." Instead, they demonstrate the phenomenological aspects of geography that include the corporeal, aural, taste, scent, and visual. We forget that palimpsests produce messy topographies. And as hard as we may try, life refuses to be any less messy. In a fullness that is always felt—as indicated when we experience anger, numbness, sadness, or recognition in the affective kinship and experiential corporeality of tragic stories Alexander [End Page 773] spoke of—but never fully apprehended, attention to Black life relates to the ineffable feelings and concerns that represent Black joy in the midst of Black pain and vice versa. In my attention to Black life, I am not demanding that the social justice work of Black Lives Matter replace its approach to Black lives. Rather, I see Black life as an inducement to recognize that while invisible, there are always other seats and people at the table. And, importantly, there are other tables in rooms that go unaccounted for in avenues toward justice.
When my father becomes sad or nervous, he becomes playful. My ten-year-old self didn't realize that. But now, with the responsibilities of adulthood forcing me to see my parents as people, I now know that my father was sad visiting the gravesites of his sister and mother. Between their headstones, he played a game of tag with his youngest daughter. And although we laughed, the memory makes me sad to know that that was his way to hold off tears. Sometimes, we don't know what we're witnessing in the moment. It may take hours, years, even decades to know. But now I know, or at least I think I do: he made the piece of a graveyard into a playground5 not to disrespect the dead but to bring a laughter that could help him get over, to help him get through. Had he gone there alone, maybe he would have cried. But with me, his youngest daughter, present, it's possible that his image of being a strong father took over. Either way, he became childlike and played tag. And as we zippered through headstones, with his mother's and sister's acting as end points, we made a new geography of death.
Rhaisa Kameela Williams is Assistant Professor of Drama in the Performing Arts Department at Washington University in St. Louis. Williams' research uses mixed-archive methods—spanning across literature, family history, archives, and public policy—to focus on the intersections of blackness, motherhood, affect, and disquieting modes of freedom. Currently, she is writing her manuscript, Mama, Don't You Weep: Motherhood, Blackness, and Performances of Grief, that traces the intimate relationship between grief and black motherhood from the civil rights movement to the present. Offering discontinuous readings of grief, the book asserts that black women, no matter their personal relationship to offspring or othermothering, have specifically mobilized grief inherent to black motherhood as a tactic to perform, remake, and critique forms of citizenship. Williams earned her Ph.D and M.A. in Performance Studies at Northwestern University and a B.A. in Africana Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. Her work has been supported by the New England Regional Fellowship Consortium, and the Mellon, Woodrow Wilson, and Ford foundations; and has appeared in Transforming Anthropology and Callaloo.
I would like to thank the reviewers and Biography's wonderful editorial team. I am especially grateful for, and humbled by, the critical generosity of Brittney Cooper and Treva Lindsey who brought together a dynamic group of scholars, activists, and artists to think, to hold each other accountable, and, most importantly, to just be.
1. I place "answers" in quotation marks to trouble assumptions of scientific objectivity. As Simone Browne points out in her introduction to Dark Matters, tools and observational analytics that contend "objectivity" are built and calibrated on white, heteronormative, ableist assumptions. Therefore, we must question the measurement of organs that reveal forms of illness, wounds, and the cause of them.
2. Missouri's history as a slave state north of the Mason-Dixon line centers much of the tension that continues today. The landmark decision in Dred Scott v. Stanford is a prime example of Missouri's history as a state bordering the free state of Illinois and as a border state part of the Missouri Compromise to maintain the balance between free and slave states in the New Republic.
3. For more on "Emotional Emancipation Circles," please see Jameta Barlow's essay in this issue.
4. On January 13, 1970, a white prison guard at California's Soledad Prison shot and killed three Black inmates during a prison fight. The guard was exonerated with a ruling of "justifiable homicide." A few days later, another prison guard was found badly beaten and thrown from a three-story ledge, soon dying from his injuries. The prison charged George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo, and John Clutchette with the murder. Attempts to defend Jackson, Drumgo, and Clutchette amassed national attention and support, wherein they were referred to as "The Soledad Brothers." To read more, please refer to George Jackson's posthumously published book, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson.
5. Omi Oshun Joni Jones spoke of graveyards as being potential playgrounds during the Black Performance Theory Conference, held at Washington University in St. Louis in April 2017.