Black Life in Retrograde


The morning the news broke about the massacre in Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal, I was driving. Having been unemployed since early April I’d tried to make my money by ridesharing. I found it difficult and I never was able to make the ends solidly meet, but made more than I would have on unemployment. Like most mornings, I did my best to be awake and alert at five a.m. in order to catch rides to the airport. Like most mornings, I made my own coffee and turned on NPR. These activities always made me feel more in control, more put together, better at adulting. I heard the news shortly before my first ride, and I was numb.

I was so numb, that I drove nearly an hour north from my home while listening to James Blake’s “Retrograde” on repeat. Something about the melancholy music that buzzes with such heavy vibrations hypnotized me. These lyrics sunk into me for an hour:

Is this darkness of the dawn?
And your friends are gone
When you friends won’t come
So show me where you fit
So show me where you fit
I’ll wait, so show me why you’re strong
Ignore everybody else,
We’re alone now
We’re alone now
We’re alone now

The song is about finding love, but I clung to the emotion of darkness. I felt like we were truly at war with white supremacy. People are gone and we’re so alone here. If you asked me about that hour, I couldn’t tell you anything. All I remember was feeling cold; totally focused on moving forward with the sky full of blushing peach tones of the rising sun. I felt alert, yet dead, completely hollowed out, filling myself with this song.

I spent the later half of that day and the entire next day inside, crying, on the couch repeatedly asking ‘why’. And: Where are we allowed to be human? Where can we feel safe from slaughter?

I didn’t listen to it again for 11 weeks.

Now it makes me cry. It makes me feel despair. If I can get through a listen without tears I feel strong.

The reaction to the tragic killing of two reporters in Virginia in August truly seared this despair into my being.

The breathtakingly tragic shootings of the WDBJ reporter and videographer Alison Parker and Adam Ward were recorded, not only by the live broadcast that was going on, but also by a body camera the killer was wearing. Shortly after having shot his former co-workers, the murderer uploaded the footage to several social media and video websites.

As quickly as these videos were spread, the sharing of them was swiftly challenged. CNN, in an effort to mimic a restraint they don’t actually understand, agreed to show the video only once an hour. They were soundly admonished and quickly reversed their decision. Don’t Watch campaigns popped up on social media targeting traditional news outlets and making a case that sharing or playing the videos only gave the killer what he so clearly desired; attention.

It was around one in the afternoon when I’d heard what had happened. It took twenty more minutes before I even found out there were videos. Even more than one hundred hours after I’d heard of the shooting, I remained just as active on social media as ever and I had not seen the video, nor a single, solitary link to the video. And this is how it should be for every victim whose last moments are forever frozen in repeated pixels, but it isn’t.

Not Walter Scott, nor Eric Garner, nor John Crawford, not even a child, Tamir Rice were afforded such courtesy in their deaths. Their last moments were televised continuously, shared through every facet of social media by private citizens and media corporations alike. I never actively looked for these videos of death, but they were proliferated so freely and so frequently that I never had to. As Jamilah Lemieux wrote:

“…it’s still important to acknowledge how comfortable Americans of all races are with seeing images of Black death. Comfortable, as if it’s supposed to happen, or as if it isn’t tragic or, perhaps, that we have to see this horror for ourselves to believe it. And because these are police shootings, there is still that large segment of the population that believes that cops are perpetually in danger of being killed by Black suspects (a “suspect” being any Black person that they have encountered, of course) and that if they raise a gun to a Black person, they either had to do it or rightly believed that they did.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise: the normalization of Black death televised. Especially when you realize that even before TV, Black death was free to see on postcards sent from coast to coast as celebratory souvenirs of lynchings. I can hear their voices and see their faces; I remember how their bodies fell without closing my eyes. I am scarred by the normalization of Black death televised. Combine this unquestioned proliferation of Black death digitized for consumption with the fact the media treats white killers with more sympathy than Black victims and it begins to feel like a pattern.

I don’t want to see the video of the WDBJ shootings. I don’t want to see still shots of the shock on the victim’s faces when they realize what is happening to them. I don’t need to know their voices to tell how scared they must’ve have been. I don’t need to click play and see how their bodies fell to feel sympathy for their families. I don’t need proof of their deaths to believe that they were ever truly human.

What I need — what we will all benefit from — is the care, tenderness, and empathy that has been shown for Alison and Adam and their families to be shown to Kaijeme Powell and Samuel Dubose and their families. What I want is for Black Lives and deaths – and Black grief – to matter just as much as anyone else’s.

Editor’s note: This essay was brought to you in part by reader “Ama.” To help fund more essays like this, contribute if you can. Thanks!


About Maria Jackson

Essayist Maria Jackson is a thirty-something, 4th generation Georgia Peach who writes for and can be heard trading opinions and laughter on the Nerdgasm Noire podcast, with Arsenal For Democracy columnist De Ana and others. Co-owner and full time fatshionista for
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