The Viralization of Black Death & Online Memorialization Practices by Justin Cook

Black Lives Matter protestors wearing shirts that read “Stop Killing Us” “R.I.P Michael Brown” while holding a sign that reads “Can I live?” Source: “Ferguson, Missouri – Black Lives Matter – 081514” by Tim Ide is licensed under CC0 1.0.

With the rise of digital media also came a resurgence of the voyeurizing and commodifying of the deaths of Black Americans. I, along with the wisdom of those who came and went before me, theorize that this viralization of Black death is yet another iteration of systemic racism deeply rooted in the history of Blackness as a spectacle. Likewise, as a white scholar, I must acknowledge my own privilege and contribution to this spectacle in even reporting these cases. That said, I also believe there is something powerful we can all learn from this trend of viral death videos that can also illuminate burgeoning work on digital memorialization practices and digital literacies and ethics.

Claudia Rankine’s New York Times article reflects on the condition of black life, one in which she described as “living in a state of mourning and fear remains commonplace” and “where Americans assimilate corpses in their daily comings and goings”. This quotidian relationship with death could make large strides for the Death Positive community, but to the contrary death is not created equal for everyone in this country. For persons of color, specifically those who have been affected by violent crimes, this interaction with death becomes something altogether different.  Rankine writes, “The unarmed, slain black bodies in public spaces turn grief into our everyday feeling that something is wrong everywhere and all the time, even if locally things appear normal” (Rankine 2015). This is the daily reality for many in our country, Black Americans specifically, and to complicate the matter is the issue of viralization of Black death. 

Emmett Till’s open casket and the resulting photos, phone footage of Alton Sterling’s and Philando Castile’s violent deaths, photos of Michael Brown’s corpse, and so many other instances of viral Black death could be named here. This tendency toward sharing the deaths of Black people online is an attempt to retain mourning as an open conversation attempting to publicly honor the memory of Black Americans, while perhaps at the same time (even if ironically), a violent reminder of the conscious devaluing of Black life through black death.

David Leonard views viralization of Black death as an issue of legibility.  “The differential spotlights are not simply about visibility, media sensationalism, and the spectacle that is part and parcel with contemporary gun discourse,” starts Leonard. “The separate and unequal media coverage also reflects the legibilities and illegibilities of certain bodies, communities, and experiences” (Leonard 102). In other words, the unequal proportion of Black death that permeates the internet is due to an issue of readability which assumes that Black bodies are only legible when defined as “aggressive, violent, threatening, intimidating” whereas Black innocence is almost entirely illegible on our computer screens (Leonard 102). It simply doesn’t compute for a culture that, as Rankine argues, “has never been able to fully recover from its white-supremacist beginnings.” (102).

Framing the discussion within a historical context of trauma in the collective Black community, Tonia Sutherland comments that, “Similar to sentiments expressed by those who witnessed lynched men and women in the post-Reconstruction United States South, records that represent black death in social and other media create a communal sense of emotional distress characterized by feelings of hopelessness, resignation, and complicity that has only begun to be examined by scholars engaged in critical studies of information and digital media culture” (32). In other words, while these digital/ viral records can in fact bear witness to senseless acts of everyday violence against Black bodies, they have also been “appropriated to reinforce systems of white supremacist power and racial inequality, re-inscribing structural and systemic racism” (33).

Essentially, grief, in public spaces, becomes a much more complicated issue when paired with the voracity with which it can be encountered on the internet. It is no longer simply a way in which we can memorialize our dead and dying, but it can also reinforce systemic racism that has always been part and parcel with social media. The Twitter community couldn’t even keep an AI (which was programmed to synthesize and repeat their tweets back to them) from becoming racist for a full 24 hours.1

Digitally-edited image of a mobile phone with the word “Facebook” written across the middle and the skull-and-crossbones emoji above it. Image Attribution: Facebook Skull Phone by Book Catalog is licensed under CC 2.0

Web memorials, whether on social media or in a dedicated memorial space, are “new venues in which the separate worlds of the living and the dead are integrated through memory and ritual” (Moss 80). As such, these spaces are often penetrated by racism, sexism, ableism, LGBTQIA-phobia, and general xenophobia. As mourners participate in these spaces they also often co-create memories of the deceased, “constructing a fuller sense of their identity” (Roberts 65). This also becomes a space where mourners even write as if expecting a response or at least readership from the dead. Roberts’ and Vidal’s study found that 28.3% of these memorial responses were addressed to the dead and 32.3% contained messages to be received directly by the deceased. As Moss, Roberts, and Vidal have all correctly identified, this co-creating of identity in online spaces carries with it the expectation of response from the deceased, suggesting a sort of reciprocity and agency from beyond the grave.

These social media mournings convey at least a minimal amount of postmortem agency and could become one way in which we begin equalizing the disproportionate commodification of death between white and black corpses. However, perhaps not surprisingly, while the rate of black victims of violent crimes more than doubles that of white victims, an overwhelming majority of memorial spaces were dedicated to white young men (Kern et. al 6-7). Even after death, after Black bodies have already been stripped of agency when they are shared, retweeted, liked, and distributed online, they remain within the minority of digital corpses online. 

Stemming from the issue of ethnic digital literatures, I see dual issues: a) viralization and commodification of Black death and inherent identity-construction; and b) lack of online Black memorials. Therefore, the following is a set of guidelines constructed for making more ethical digitally-literate decisions about when and how to digitally interact with the corpses of the slain and postmortem, because as Richardson and Ragland contend, “literacy is something people do, not something they have or do not have, or sets of skills according to hegemonic literacy” (Richardson and Ragland 31). 

  1. We must acknowledge and actively push back against the fact that “the lack of sanctity for Black life is a text against which Black people have lived throughout the various eras of the Black experience” (Richardson and Ragland 27).
  2. We must work toward redefining Black bodies as legible through the same set of signifiers that are white bodies. Black bodies can no longer be legible only through the lens of violence and threat, but must be afforded all literacies of the range of human experience: innocence, grief, passion, etc. (Leonard 2017).
  3. Black bodies can no longer be commodified as voyeuristic displays of guilt and racism. We must allow Black communities to grieve their dead without constant reminders of the atrocities heaped upon the community from racist and xenophobic outsiders (Rankine 2015).
  4. We must take stiff account of who gets mourned in online spaces and actively work towards evening out this unbalanced system of whiteness as it relates to violent death and subsequent memorialization (Kern et. al 2013).

Works Cited

Kern, Rebecca, Abbe E. Forman, and Gisela Gil-Egui. “R.I.P.: Remain in Perpetuity. Facebook Memorial Pages.” Telematics and Informatics, vol. 30, no. 1, pp. 2-10.

Leonard, David J. “Illegible Black Death, Legible White Pain: Denied Media, Mourning, and Mobilization in an Era of ‘Post-Racial’ Gun Violence.” Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies, vol. 12, no. 2, pp. 101-109.

Moss, Miriam. “Grief on the Web.” OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying, vol. 49, no. 1, 2004, pp. 77-81.

Rankine, Claudia. “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning.” New York Times Magazine, 22 June 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/22/magazine/the-condition-of-black-life-is-one-of-mourning.html 

Richardson, Elaine and Alice Ragland. “#StayWoke: The Language and Literacies of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement.” Community Literacy Journal, vol. 12, no. 2, 2018, pp. 27-56.

Roberts, Pamela. “The Living and the Dead: Community in the Virtual Cemetery.” OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying, vol. 49, no. 1, 2004, pp. 57-76.

Roberts, Pamela and Lourdes A. Vidal. “Perpetual Care in Cyberspace: A Portrait of Memorials on the Web.” OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying, vol. 40, no. 4, 2000, pp. 521-545.

Sutherland, Tonia. “Making a Killing: On Race, Ritual, and (Re)Membering in Digital Culture.” Preservation, Digital Technology & Culture, special issue of De Gruyter, vol. 46, no. 1, 2017, pp. 32-40.

Hunt, Elle. “Twitter taught Microsoft’s AI chatbot to be a racist asshole in less than a day.” The Guardian, 24 March 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/mar/24/tay-microsofts-ai-chatbot-gets-a-crash-course-in-racism-from-twitter?CMP=twt_a-technology_b-gdntech 

  1. For more information see Elle Hunt’s Guardian article: “Twitter taught Microsoft’s AI chatbot to be a racist asshole in less than a day.”

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