The Spectacle of Death
It’s 8pm on Tuesday, November 1st, 2022. I woke up at 6 am this morning to early reports that a popular Atlanta rapper was shot and died in Houston, Texas. I’m saddened but not surprised that photos and videos of the 28 year-old are still circulating online, new information added as it is purchased and offered up. The social discourse is swirling — it’s a mix of respectability politics about who should be where doing what, truthful lamentations that not enough Black men get to grow old and tributes to a man who was known to be peaceful in his life. It is a full realization of the spectacle of death.
I’m a Muslim, and there is a well-known book titled “The Spectacle of Death”. It is an oversized, bright red book with gold lettering. I’ll be honest — the ominous title and content have always kept me at arm’s length. I’ve only ever read a few pages of the text on ancient scholars’ ideas of what happens when human life ends. Given that I’m low-key shook to read it, I’m not an expert on those theories on the particulars of what happens beyond this world but I know all too well what the spectacle of death looks like Earthside.
Almost a year ago on November 25th, 2021 my younger brother died, and the first act of the spectacle of death began. The moments after I found out were absolutely surreal, and I remember screaming and crying uncontrollably. Sobbing in the grass outside of his home, knowing by the slow gathering of neighbors that I was the spectacle but also not feeling capable of any other reaction. I know death and grief intimately, so I knew that in the midst of my life’s most tragic moment I had to make those dreaded calls to our loved ones. My husband and two of my brother’s friends had accompanied me there, but there were many others who I would have to deliver this news to.
After immediate calls to close family, at some point I calmed myself enough to log on and try to share the news to our broader community to find out that someone else already had. In fact, several people had. This, the social media act of the spectacle, is the part of it all that brings me full circle back to today, November 1st, 2022. What has caused us to feel so much ownership over other people, that we rush to share the most fragile and intimate news that doesn’t belong to us?
I asked the first few people I saw that had shared his passing to remove their posts, and was told that they heard it was okay to share by “the family”. I screamed and cried to myself, knowing that any effort beyond that would be useless. Having already lost my brother, social media had also taken from me the chance to share the news on my own terms and in the way I felt fit to honor him.
I’m certain they meant no harm; these were people we grew up with, who I know were all also saddened and shocked. I can’t say the same for TMZ though. While the text on their site says words like thoughts and prayers, they only mean well for this man to the extent that it makes their profit from his death palatable enough to meet a very low threshold of human decency. TMZ continues to make the biggest spectacle of death. Whether we realize it or not, the gossip media’s disregard for casually documenting and circulating the intimate details of other peoples’ deaths is traumatic for those who love them. That includes their fans, who may not realize they are being traumatized and going through the stages of grief for someone they feel connected to from afar. And the spectacle is catching; we are following their lead towards having no boundaries in the handling of life’s most delicate counterpart, death.
Someone related to that Atlanta rapper woke up and found out their loved one was lost on the Internet. It makes me long for the days of quiet speculation, awaiting an official statement from a rep or the family. Death and grief are themselves quite the spectacle, they don’t need our help. While we’re canceling Twitter, let’s add TMZ to the roster.