Seeing as it has been about a month or so since I have last been able to really write, I figured I’d post a piece I wrote for my English 517 class (Automortography). Comments and critiques are, as always, welcome.
On August 9, 2014, an 18-year-old Black man named Michael Brown was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The exact circumstances of the event remain heavily disputed, but Brown was reported to be unarmed at the time of the shooting. Although the anger and grief of Ferguson’s Black population inspired tumultuous protests that animated the area for several weeks following the event, an allegedly militarized police force attempted to contain the protestors, which resulted in several violent clashes. Regardless of contradictory witness reports and the minor allegations against Brown for an unrelated crime, officer Darren Wilson’s willingness to end the life of an unarmed Black man without absolute and indisputable justification reflects the general devaluing of Black bodies that characterizes American culture. The deeply problematic social perception of Black bodies and identities as something other than fully human can be traced as far back as the antebellum slave trade, and establishes the murder of Mike Brown as not simply an instance of police irresponsibility and brutality, but also as an exemplification of African American social death.
In order to analyze and comprehend the relationship between Brown’s murder and the Black social death, the concept of “social death” must first be defined. In the practice of automortography, mortality can be examined as an extensive but always-shortening spectrum between a life/death binary. Upon this spectrum, human beings exist as animated “subjects”— fully realized beings with emotions, desires, and identities. But in death, humans exist as non-sentient objects—corpses. Ordinary human death is characterized by the transition from subject to object: person to corpse. Social death, on the other hand, is a rare phenomenon in which cultural factors force the subject-to-object transition to occur prematurely, resulting in a still-living individual who exists, through the social lens, as an object rather than a fully recognized person. “Social death,” in the context of this essay, is any transmutation from subject to object that precedes the physical ending of one’s life, and is a form of subjugation that affects both the public and private spheres.
The cultural ideologies that compelled the social death of African Americans were contingent upon the notion of property in a bourgeois society, and more specifically, the United State’s status as an independent slaveholding economy. In Orlando Patterson’s work, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study, the practice of slavery is defined as “one of the most extreme forms of the relation of domination, approaching the limits of total power from the viewpoint of the master, and of total powerlessness from the viewpoint of the slave.”3 The power dynamic of the master-slave dialectic stemmed from the commodification of enslaved bodies— the reduction of enslaved persons to property (or objects) within a commercial system. This premature (that is to say, pre-death) reduction from subject to object in the public sphere was further ingrained into African American identity during the 1857 Supreme Court Case Dred Scott v. Sandford, wherein Chief Justice Roger B. Taney essentially established the status of the American slave as interchangeable with that of private property. In the aftermath of this decision, Black men and women were socially and legally reduced to objects before their physical deaths in the very language of United States legislation; as such, their social death was cemented into the American public sphere.
But as Patterson demonstrates in his writing, the reduction of a living individual to an object impacts the private sphere as well. In Slavery and Social Death, the interviews with form American slaves reportedly include statements such as, “I was so bad I needed the whipping.” The immense personal ramifications of social death are unavoidably clear here: in reducing their status from human to object before the moment of physical deaths, slave owners staked a claim to their slaves that stretched past the fibers of their forms and towards the very foundations of their identity. The quotation highlights the inescapable fact that the Black body is, in essence, a body that has been colonized, raped, brutalized, murdered, and always commodified—and that now, haunted by a specter of visceral subjugation barely rivaled in human history, men and women of color are tasked with establishing their physical presence as more than that of an object within a white supremacist society. Perhaps they believe that in doing so, they will be able to resurrect their bodies and themselves from the personal degradation that accompanies social death.
Even now, in what too many consider to be a post-race era, the frequency of police brutality towards and mass incarceration of Black individuals makes this reclamation and redefinition of the Black body nearly impossible. Instances such as Mike Brown’s murder, in which Black individuals, and particularly Black males, are victims of senseless and excessive violence, shed light upon the lingering strains of racism and the racial objectification that devalue formerly colonized bodies for the benefit of a white audience. In the aftermath of Brown’s shooting, certain media outlets feigned impartiality by using potential evidence of Mike Brown stealing cigars from a convenience store in order to justify, or at least rationalize, his murder. While some sought to vindicate the white police officer by affirming allegations of Brown’s theft, others attempted to emphasize the criminal nature of the shooting by denying Brown’s involvement in the robbery. In these unceasing conversations in a white-dominated American public sphere, the Black body was continuously stripped of its value: whether outlets were affirming or denying the claims against Brown, these discussions reduced Black men to a fundamentally lower social group—a class of not-quite-people for whom, in the aftermath of a minor misdemeanor, assassination can be considered a potentially valid response.
In the actions of Officer Darren Wilson, as well as in the subsequent media response, Black social death emerges as an inescapable and deeply horrifying American reality. The excessive force used by white police officers, disproportionately high rates of incarceration among Black males, and imposed economic and legal circumstances—most notably the so-called War on Drugs—that seriously limit the possibility of upward mobility for Black individuals, have all contributed to the establishment of a contemporary sociopolitical climate within which the full reclamation of the Black body seems almost unattainable. The white public’s commodification of the Black body, which brings with it the legacy of American slavery, has reduced the identity and visceral autonomy of African Americans to that of an object, and formulated an inescapable cultural death that begin to take effect at the moment of their birth. In recent years, the social death of Black community has never been more evident than in the cases of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, wherein social objectification of the Black male body has skewed the definition of humanity with which the public considers identity, autonomy, and the worth of a human life; nevertheless, the actions of the Ferguson protestors are the first steps towards Black social resurrection. It is here, amidst the very commercial culture in which the Black body first became public property, that African American individuals and communities can transcend circumstantial restrictions of their respective realities by overcoming their objectification. The Ferguson protestors’ full recognition of the value of Brown’s body and life was, by extension, recognition of their own inherent worth: a collective struggle to complete the transition from object back to subject in which Black individuals can—and ultimately will—triumph.
Schmidt, Michael, Matt Apuzzo, and Julie Bosman. “Police Officer in Ferguson Is Said to Recount a Struggle.” The New York Times. October 17, 2014. Accessed November 5, 2014.
Bello, Marisol, and Yamiche Alcindor. “Police in Ferguson Ignite Debate about Military Tactics.” USA Today. August 19, 2014. Accessed November 5, 2014.
Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982.