Black and Brown folks across the country and around the world are constantly reminded that death could be lurking around the corner. While we do find ways to cope, survive, and thrive, it’s hard to hold on to what little hope we have while our communities continue to be regularly impacted by trauma, and while our Black and Brown children aren't honored in life but only truly seen in death. And after their deaths, we are forced to watch as pictures and stories of their pain and suffering become viral images, hashtags, objects, and symbols that are often taken out of context and used for problematic ends.
Watching how easily some people consume and share media depicting the pain and death of Black and Brown people, particularly our children who’ve lost their lives too soon and as the result of racism, makes me wonder if people understand the history of racialized violence in the United States. Or if they care that our children are so often objectified.
Which is why as a Black mother of an Afro-Latinx child, I couldn't help but feel instant rage and discomfort when, during a game between the White Sox and the Twins, the stadium scoreboard featured images of "famous people from Chicagoland." And spliced between photos of Pat Sajak and Orson Welles, a scoreboard staffer included a photo of Emmett Till.
Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy, was savagely beaten, shot, and killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman who, years later, admitted she made up the story about his flirtations, as reported by The New York Times. His brutalized body was found floating in the Tallahatchie River and the tragedy led to a trial that ended in a not-guilty verdict. His open casket funeral represented a painful moment in Civil Rights history, and images of his tortured body continue to circulate today in different contexts.
If the goal was to honor Till's memory and role in the Civil Rights Movement, context and education could have helped. Instead, game attendees were shown an incomplete story. They were flashed a picture of a Black child being used as a prop for the sake of "wokeness." They viewed the dehumanization of a child in real time, during a baseball game.
In the era of in-memoriam hashtags, it's important to consider the ways we think about, honor, and contextualize images and narratives related to the lived experiences of Black and Brown people. Especially with respect to children. Especially with respect to their deaths. Given the circumstances surrounding Till's tragic murder, and the history of Black and Brown children in the United States' sociopolitical imagination, the inclusion of his picture on the scoreboard during the baseball game was, and is, controversial.
Transforming the lives of Black and Brown children into commodified images and sound bites is far too common and spans the realms of pop culture, sports, and often politics.
It's time for Black and Brown children to be protected, safe from exploitation, honored, and respected while they're alive.
Just a day before the Sox game, Joe Biden gave a speech during Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition annual convention in Chicago and remarked that, "we've got to recognize that kid wearing a hoodie may very well be the next poet laureate and not a gangbanger," evoking the image of Trayvon Martin, a Florida teenager who was killed in 2012 by a member of neighborhood watch because he looked suspicious in his "dark hoodie."
What Biden and the Sox scoreboard staffer seem to have in common is a lack of tact when it comes to addressing issues related to Black death and pain — especially when it befalls Black children. Both Till and Martin were Black boys whose lives were ended at the hands of violent racists. Sadly, their deaths are a part of a long history of violence against Black and Brown children in the United States that continues to this day. From the tragic case of Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise, better known as the Central Park Five, five teenage boys who were falsely accused of assault and rape in connection to the 1989 Central Park Jogger case and whose story was recently featured in Ava DuVernay's When They See Us, to the inhumane treatment of detained migrant children at the southern border, there are multiple examples throughout American history, both past and present, that highlight the constant threat of violence against Black and Brown children.
Black and Brown children shouldn't have to be poet laureates in order to be awarded humanity. They also shouldn't be objectified for the sake of political strategy or context-free features on baseball game scoreboards. It's time for Black and Brown children to be protected, safe from exploitation, honored, and respected while they're alive.
It's time for us to simply treat them as children.
Similar to "lynched bodies left in the trees for all to see" explained Del Sol, "the ever-present force of death" haunts Black and Brown lives.
Black and Brown boys are disproportionally impacted by the prison system when compared to white boys, according to a 2018 article from the Columbia Social Work Review, and are impacted in more complex ways. Not only are Black and Brown children more likely to have at least one incarcerated parent, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, they are also more likely to be arrested and subjected to policies like stop-and-frisk, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union... not because they're committing more crimes than white children, but because of the ways that racism informs implicit biases of law enforcement agents. Further, the tragic trend of unarmed Black and Brown boys killed by police continues to turn young kids of color into viral hashtags and talking points for politicians.
Cory Booker tweeted a response to Biden after his comments about kids in hoodies, writing, "This isn’t about a hoodie. It’s about a culture that sees a problem with a kid wearing a hoodie in the first place. Our nominee needs to have the language to talk about race in a far more constructive way."
The culture that "sees a problem with a kid wearing a hoodie" is the same culture that doesn't automatically see a problem with a photo of Emmett Till sandwiched between Sajak and Welles. It's the same culture that views Black children playing in parks as dangerous threats, or Brown children as future gang members. Mike Morgan, who leads immigration and customs enforcement, told Fox News personality Tucker Carlson of the immigrant children he detains on behalf of the government, "I've looked at them and I've look at their eyes, Tucker —and I've said that is a soon-to-be MS-13 gang member. It's unequivocal."
Not a child in need of a toothbrush and a bath and a place to sleep. Not a child that deserves to remain with his or her parents. Not a child at all. Just a future member of a gang, by virtue of being Brown.
Black and Brown children are more than the viral images and hashtags that feature their names and bodies.
Like the viral, and graphic, image of the deceased Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his daughter Valeria on the bank of the Rio Grande, the photo of Till on the scoreboard and the comments made by Biden highlight the normalization of Black and Brown children as objects — not human beings. This reduction of the suffering and deaths of Black and Brown children to entertainment, spectacle, or political gain, especially with respect to performances and imagery, represents what scholar Lisa Del Sol refers to as "continuous post-mortem violence." Similar to "lynched bodies left in the trees for all to see," explained Del Sol in her paper titled Black Death: Repetition and Reiterations of Racial Terror for a 2018 workshop at Columbia University with the Graduate Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, "the ever-present force of death" haunts the lives of Black and Brown folks.
Black and Brown children are more than the viral images and hashtags that feature their names and bodies. It's important to be careful and considerate when sharing images of Black and Brown children whose lives were cut short as a result of brutal violence, inherently discriminatory political policies, and systemic racism. Be it state violence, structural violence, or otherwise, the tragedies plaguing Black and Brown communities don't exist in a vacuum. Too often, our stories and lives are objectified for the sake of entertainment or spectacle.
Black and Brown children don't need fame, they need protection. They need the chance to simply be children.