Writing about Black Death in the Time of Black Lives Matter

Wendy Thompson Taiwo

The following is a guest post by Wendy Thompson Taiwo, whose poetry appeared in issue 20 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.

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I began writing extensively about the conditions of black life and death in America after the murder of Philando Castile in Minnesota in 2016. The killing that took place on that hot July night—a police officer drawing his weapon, a black man shot dead—was routine and yet different. I was living with my young daughter in St. Paul when I heard the news. All of us, black and living in a state that was both in the Great White North and just another South, would wonder what we had been doing in that exact moment he was executed in that car, and if next time, his fate could be our own. 

In Kwame Holmes’ essay, “Necrocapitalism, Or, THE VALUE OF BLACK DEATH,” Holmes writes that Philando “was killed in transit, on Larpenture [sic] Avenue…in the Chevrolet that would become his tomb.” Killed in transit. Chevrolet that would become his tomb. These words would haunt me deeply as a black woman who grew up in California in the 1980s and 90s and watched the grainy footage of the beating of Rodney King and the fiery Los Angeles uprising that followed on TV. Holmes’ words would also resonate with me as a horror film fanatic who could never get over that trope where the black character always dies first. As hyper aware as black folks are and have had to be in this country, it was always so difficult to watch black figures on screen be recklessly hacked to death in the first twenty minutes of a film.

How many generations had lived through attacks by nightriders, race riots, and lynch mobs? How many of us learned the contours of the dark, the smell of the swamp, how to stay one step away from death? There is not one sound, one shadow that our kinfolk would not know to avoid, not one suspicious person our grandmothers could not suss out.

Like a roomful of white screenwriters who decide to kill off the one black character first, white people have been writing black people in the New World to death using law, story, structure, and practice. But it is against this reality that many of us write about black life—before and after death—instead of erasure, nonexistence. In writing about black death right now amid a viral and racial pandemic, I am engaging in the black tradition of conjuring language to write ourselves—our love, our losses, our shame, our preexisting conditions, our innocence, our rage—into existence. And by following in the footsteps of my literary kinfolk who wrote to excise the figurative and actual monsters that haunted and hunted us, I too use words to kill what seemingly can’t be killed, in stories where we are the heroes and survivors, where we don’t just make it out alive but live through the sequel too. 

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Wendy Thompson Taiwo is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies at San José State University. Her writing has appeared in Typehouse, Mn Artists, Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism, Nokoko, and numerous anthologies. https://twitter.com/wendy_taiwo

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