Was the Commodification of Breonna Taylor Worth It?

Through her death, she became an icon. I wrestle with its impact.

A sign memorialising Breonna Taylor is photographed in front of closed streets in downtown Louisville, Kentucky on September 23, 2020. Photo: Jeff Dean/AFP/Getty Images

Her likeness was everywhere, immortalized. A cyan dream on the September cover of Vanity Fair. Angelic, floating midair toward the skyline on 26 billionaire-branded billboards. A mural painted on two basketball courts in a park in Annapolis, Maryland, so substantial it was visible only in full from the sky. On June 5, Instagram art commemorated her on her would-be 27th birthday. Her name was likewise invoked: a jewelry business named pieces after her, WNBA players wore her name on their backs, a mask said her name at the U.S. Open.

Breonna Taylor was who she was, beautiful, and she left a significant mark on the world.

Last Wednesday, we were thrown into a loop, caught going round and round, when another juridical decision told us what we already know: that policing is anti-Black and patriarchal, that the state won’t protect or serve Black people, that property rights are at the foundation of an American understanding of human life. The Kentucky grand jury decision was further evidence of Taylor’s disposability but also a further clarification on how we remember her: as an icon.

These multitudinous images, inextricable as they are from Breonna Taylor, are not Breonna Taylor. They reflect the profit and pleasure of seeing ourselves do good, be good — that inescapable cycle between virtue signaling and direct action — but they also spring from a genuine desire and attempt to confront centuries of White supremacist terror. Lodged somewhere between these two impulses, I felt uneasy, exhausted with representation and its burden, but at the same time I could not ignore some unprecedented collective acknowledgement of Black women’s suffering.

How does acknowledging turn to instrumentalizing? This monumentalization of Black women renders them fungible. Her image, manipulable, is asked to do so much work. Prevailing images of the Black woman, as a figure, are the metaphors upon which we pirouette, spinning and spinning around a morbid fixation.

Sensuous visibility, a semblance of Black political agency, is in some ways a symptom of how, to various degrees, sensory life over the course of Covid-19 has been upended. In New York City, our daily soundtrack was fireworks and ambulance sirens. We’ve spent six months yearning for touch, learning new ways to survive on our own. And so much time looking, looking, looking.

In imagining what justice looks like while imagining her face, she is still here being used, a symbol stretching but also a multiplying and shifting resource.

Instead of looking, I read Louisville Metro Police Department Sergeant Jonathan Mattingly’s email, a chauvinist blue-lives-matter manifesto. He said nothing of Breonna Taylor, though he could not excise her from the background. He wrote, “I know we did the legal, moral, and ethical thing that night.” And then I reread Assata Shakur in her 1987 autobiography: “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” And then Andrea Ritchie and Mariame Kaba in July: “We want far more than what the system that killed Breonna Taylor can offer — because the system that killed her is not set up to provide justice for her family and loved ones.”

Justice won’t spring from racist courts, violent laws. Abolitionists are asking now more than before: What exactly does justice for Breonna Taylor look like? In imagining what justice looks like while imagining her face, she is still here being used, a symbol stretching but also a multiplying and shifting resource. But of all the things I’ve sensed, nothing compares to my sense, however small it sometimes becomes, that abolition is possible.

I saw how her name and face also appeared, appears, and will appear at protests — intricate but anguished sketches or hastily painted letters B-R-E-O-N-N-A — reflecting the many practices, aesthetics, and conditions of everyday visual culture made by those of us who are suffering and struggling for abolition at the same time. And as protests continue in Louisville and beyond, individuation gets another reckoning. Social media posts began to redact “arrest the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor,” editing it to read “abolish the system that killed Breonna Taylor,” an imperative sentence that is more capacious though perhaps more personally painful in the short term. As people are getting tanked in their streets, the larger post-slavery system that contributes to these killings comes further into view.

A report published this month told us once again what we already knew: that the United States has been at nonstop war in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and the Philippines since 2001. Domestically, however, the war on drugs was declared in June 1971, almost 50 years ago. That, too, is an infinity war. Taylor was murdered by police in her home in a no-knock drug raid, as was 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2006, as was Tarika Wilson, 26, who was holding her baby when she died in Lima, Ohio, in 2008.

Can an image hold all that? Must it? Our inaccessibly ocular-obsessed culture coerces a dance between what we see and what we don’t. But when physical evidence and visual proof — evidence leaked, questions raised, policies violated — mean nothing to a court of law, the exceptions, as they say, are nothing but the rule.

Breonna Taylor’s image, in its profound citation of historical violence, has made me weak in my knees, but in the same breath, the proliferation of her commodified image — hieroglyphics of state-sanctioned violence against Black people — feels irremediable. I told myself I wasn’t going to write about her, my emotions overdrawn from the death of my father and a friend in the same season, from the rising Covid-19 death toll, from what Dionne Brand called, 10 years ago, “momentous, ravenous, ugly times.” How could I live without some wall between me and all that? But here’s the thing: With the day’s headache humming into my pillow, when I finally managed to close my eyes for bed, trying to quiet the pain of loss, I could only see her face.

writer, literature teacher, phd candidate at columbia

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store