The Black Death Project

How do we render and receive stories of death and violence in black communities?  Cathy Cohen (University of Chicago, Political Science), film producer and director Orlando Bagwell, and sculptor Garland Taylor develop a project that investigates how representations of blackness, death and violence are reflected in and refracted by neoliberalism and new media.

It is hard to live in the city of Chicago and not be confronted with the notion of violence and death in black communities. Whether it is the death of young black individuals such as Hadiya Pendelton, Derrion Albert, and Emmett Till or the unnamed hundreds of young black and Latino youth killed largely on Chicago’s south and west sides, there is a way in which the city seems to intimately link brown and black people to death and violence. In addition to the daily news accounts detailing the killing of young black and brown, there have been numerous public accounts of the killing fields of Chicago aka Chiraq. Most recently, CNN broadcast their original series Chicagoland. The eight-part non-scripted series focused on what might be called Chicago’s Tale of Two Cities. Viewers were given limited and stereotypical views into the Chicago of the north side, cast as predominantly white and absent the gun violence and death experienced on the south and west sides. Viewers are also given a terrifying look into what can only be construed as the bleakness of life of the south and west sides of Chicago where children are threatened by the prospect of violence in their neighborhoods and schools. It is not an understatement to suggest that the perceived and real experience with violence and death, primarily in black and brown communities, has captured the attention of the nation and some parts of the world. For example, in November of 2013 the French government issued a warning to French travelers to the U.S., instructing them to avoid Chicago’s west side and south side (below 59th street).

To be sure, Chicago is not the only city or space where death and violence has come to define much of the public narrative of race and skin color. One need only think about how the death and destruction of Hurricane Katrina became a story almost exclusively of black New Orleans and violence in the Ninth Ward. The experience of Brown and Black people has often been narrated through the prism of death and violence. Much of the struggle against Jim Crow was told through the lens of lynching and other forms of violence such as rape. More recently, our understanding of HIV and AIDS is formed in part by the disproportionate deaths of black people whether they are men who sleep with men, injection drug users or sex workers. Part of the gruesome history of the United States seems often to be associated with the broken black body.

We enter this project with a deep commitment to understanding how representations of Black death mark this particular neoliberal moment. How is the violent death of black and brown young people generated by, reflective of, or related to neoliberalism? To explore this question we will first try to understand the contours of Black death beyond the numbers. While statistics give us a sense of the disproportionate suffering happening (again) in black communities, we are also interested in how each death impacts and ties together multiple networks of people and communities through such an irrevocable and devastating act. In addition to understanding the complexity of black death we want to understand how individuals, communities, politicians, journalists and bystanders narrate these moments and periods of suffering. How do different constituencies seek to make sense of the tragedy of death in “disproportionate” numbers in black and brown communities? What “truths” do they evoke in their storytelling about this type of death and violence?

Finally, we are also interested in how changing forms of media alter the manner in which different publics receive narratives about and respond to violence and death in black and brown communities. From the images of Emmett Till in Jet Magazine, to the videos of the beating of Rodney King and more recently Derrion Albert, to the 911 calls of George Zimmerman, all these national stories of violence and death have been shaped by technologies that allowed images and narration to extend into the national consciousness. This project will allow us to interrogate the “making” of death and violence in the age of new media.

In many ways this project is inspired and influenced by Jacqueline Goldsby's book A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature. In this work, Goldsby explores the centrality of lynching to the production of modernity through literature and photographic images. Similarly, we are interested in what narratives and representations of death and violence in black communities, in multiple forms and media, tell us about American society today. How do such representations and narrations of black life and death help to constitute this specific historical and political period? How do the affordances of new media or digital media influence the public understanding of violence and death in black communities? How does new media allow for new and different constituencies to narrate the meaning of death and violence in black communities and how do their stories and images differ from mainstream representations?