Was the Commodification of Breonna Taylor Worth It?
Through her death, she became an icon. I wrestle with its impact.
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…