Breathe In and Out; Say Their Name: Renée Ater’s Instagram-Based Memorial, “I Can’t Breathe”
By: Kaylee P. Alexander
This is how Renée Ater, a public scholar and historian, began a personal blogpost on May 29, 2020, just four days after the murder of George Floyd. Three days later she took to Instagram, posting a simple black square with Floyd’s name and life dates. Intended at first as a one-off post, an interruption to the too often rose-colored images that tended to occupy her social media feed, Ater soon shifted gears. What about all those other unarmed black and brown people that had been murdered by the police? Or those who, like Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin, had been victims of white men and lynching mobs? So she began to post names daily.
Ater began by consulting resources such as Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name to compile a list of those murdered as a result of police brutality and white supremacy. The list kept growing. It continues to grow.
Working with two colleagues, art historians Cecilia Wichmann and Mary Savig, Ater revised her original posts to include both the birth and death dates of those memorialized, as a means of focusing not solely on their final, traumatic ends, but also the rich lives that they lived. She also went back and added some simple instructions for those who came across her feed, which was becoming more and more a public monument to those lives lost. She called her remembrance project “I Can’t Breathe: A Digital Memorial,” and pledged that for 120 days, beginning on June 1, 2020, she would post the names from her list. She asked that those who came across these names while scrolling through their feeds take a moment to pause and acknowledge the loss. “Breath in and out,” she wrote, “Say their name. Learn something about the person. Their families still hold them in their hearts. Then act. Take responsibility. Reach out your hand. Educate. Donate. Protest. Demonstrate. Vote.”
Ater, who had never had a public social media account, and who describes herself as “not a super social media person” and someone who has “been really frustrated by social media,” made the decision to take her Instagram off of private mode, albeit with comments disabled as to avoid unnecessary commentary and interactions with the memorials. Ater’s Instagram account has now been transformed into a sort of utopic, digital cemetery wherein one may come to pay their respects to the dead without fear of markers being desecrated or erased. There is something rather permanent about being memorialized on the Internet that simply isn’t possible in the physical spaces of death, burial, and commemoration.
As a scholar of public monuments, race and national identity, it is no accident that Ater’s posts have taken on the character of grave markers. In discussing the designs of her posts she has not only cited cemetery markers more generally as inspiration, but also specifically the uniform white tombstones with black inscriptions found in American military cemeteries, which she has critically reconceived here as simple black monuments inscribed in the font of the Black Lives Matter movement. Whereas the military cemetery, kept at a distance from the living, may be characterized as concealing the traumatic experiences of wartime, Ater’s memorial confronts the living head-on in a space that we visit on a daily basis, obliging the viewer to acknowledge the traumatic experiences of black and brown people in America today. Those who follow Ater cannot ignore these deaths, they are reminded daily of these losses as they stumble across them in their Instagram feeds.
What had begun, for Ater, as a private act of mourning and a means for processing her own grief in a year that had been defined by both personal loss and public crisis, has now become a very public, therapeutic memorial. Integrally linked in its form and message to the types of monuments and memorials that have been the objects of Ater’s study for years, the “I Can’t Breathe” digital memorial to the victims of police brutality and white supremacy seems to be just the type of modern monument our contemporary society needs: a cenotaph that brings these victims together, that emphasizes the lives they lived and calls on viewers to act, that cannot be defaced, that persists in its digital form, and that confronts us right where we live.
To learn more about Renée Ater’s remembrance project, “I Can’t Breathe: A Digital Memorial,” be sure to check out, “Police Brutality, Slave Past and Digital Rememberance: A Conversation with Dr. Renée Ater,” from July 23, 2020.