The idea of a 14 year old child made to be the sacrificial lamb in the movement towards the liberation and humanization of his people, is disturbing in its reminiscence biblical stories of divine sacrifice. He did not die because he was called upon as a lesson in love and devotion; not spared by a merciful God. His story surpasses these in tragedy for its lack of meaning and uniqueness. A child turned martyr under the violent circumstances of his blackness, a fate of subjection to the violence of proclaimed white superiority, from his conception. And yet, it is the forceful canonization and veneration of Emmett Till that catalyzed the Civil Rights Movement, as did the death of Latasha Harlins in the LA Riots, and the death of Trayvon Martin in the Black Lives Matter Movement.
The brutalized bodies of Black youth have become cultural reference points for a call to action, the point at which racial tensions have become decidedly insufferable. And yet, even after the exclamation that we will no longer tolerate these injustices and cruelties, we find ourselves paying tribute to one saint after another, no clear moment of absolution. In the perpetual use of Black victims as racial iconography and their symbolic significance to recompense their human mortality Black art, as the cultural expression of persons of African descent, holds the moral obligation to engage in the humanization of blackness and pursue the salvation of the Black body.
The function of these child martyrs is the image of unsurmountable injustice, to which one can only respond in urgency and action. No longer is this a faceless epidemic, but a mother and the unfathomably violent theft of her child. Yet in the age of social media, the brutalized Black body is regularly circulated and consumed by the masses, reduced to routine micro doses of trauma over which the families and loved ones have virtually no say with no question of privacy. The agency exercised by Mamie Till in the media coverage of her son is a dignity no longer afforded, yet the implications of assumed accountability over its impact on social activism from the moment we have looked upon the body become even wider reaching. We no longer have the excuse of lack of engagement from lack of exposure. The ease and normalcy of the image of expendable Black bodies can only be compensated for by social reevaluation of equal proportions and strides towards collective justice.
“Racial iconicity hinges on a relationship between veneration and denigration and this twinning shapes the visual production and reception of black American icons. The racial icon as both a venerated and denigrated figure serves a resonating function as a visual embodiment of American history and as proof of the supremacy of American democracy”. (Fleetwood,8)
When the image of a victim is reproduced in iconicity, the subject is robbed of their private citizenry, instead given status as a figure with larger symbolic significance while also reduced to an easily digested trope. This is a dichotomy between an image held to both superhuman expectations in the liberation of its people and subhuman generalization of the individual themselves.
Alexandra Bell’s production of public installations, with the image of the late Michael Brown posed in graduation attire, is an example of the approach to mass circulation of the victim as a martyr to inspire public sympathy and activism. Three years after his murder, this already identifiable image held even greater impact as unsuspecting residents of a white, affluent California suburb were directly met by his gaze, demanding accountability. A presence and impact larger than himself, there is immense value in Michael Brown’s image as a way to confront passive onlookers. While it is important that Black people engage the tragedies inflicted upon their own communities, it is also imperative that these images be addressed by white Americans who often have little incentive to concern themselves with the critical condition of the Black body.
“ A recurrent pattern emerges: the “top” attempts to reject and eliminate the “bottom” for reasons of prestige and status only to discover, not only that it is in some way frequently dependent upon the low-Other… but also that the top includes that low symbolically, as a primary eroticized constituent of its own fantasy life. The result is a mobile, conflictual fusion of power, fear, and desire in the construction of subjectivity: a psychological dependence upon precisely those others which are being vigorously opposed and excluded at the social level.” (Hall, 474)
The production and reproduction of the image of Trayvon Martin was essential in the rise and influence of the Black Lives Matter. Reconceptualized by various artists and activists he became a symbol of the ongoing oppressive racial circumstances of the United States, as well as the universal threat to Black boyhood. Suddenly Trayvon could be anyone’s son or brother, the image of a hooded Black figure applied to the vulnerability of any Black body becoming comparable to the hood and halo of Catholic virgins and madonnas as a symbol of fragile divinity. However, in this veneration we put the massive responsibility of representing the historical and continued injustices, as well as the pursuit of future liberation on the shoulders of a child who had no say in the matter, who as an isolated incident suffered a meaningless theft of life. This leaves the responsibility of his posthumous legacy and social impact on all Black artists who engage it, identify with it, and are compelled to move others to act upon it.