Viewing Black Death, an American Pastime

Cara Hagan
7 min readMay 29, 2020


I love horror films. My first ever horror film experience was Fright Night (1985) where the handsome Chris Sarandon puts a young Amanda Bearse under his spell in a dance club while the protagonist, played by William Ragsdale tries to rescue her. As Sarandon attempts to leave the club to keep Bearse away from Ragsdale, he is confronted by two bouncers. Suddenly, Chris Sarandon is no longer the 1980s heart-throb of movies and magazines. He’s a ghastly vampire with long nails, sallow skin, sharp teeth, and super-human strength. On his way out of the club he handily disposes of both bouncers by slashing the neck of one, and choking the other while holding him high in the air. The bouncers are both Black men. I was five years old.

I have been watching Black people die on screen my whole life. Likewise, America has been watching Black people die on screen since the turn of the 20th century. Prior to that, photographs of Black people hanging from trees were made to commemorate public lynchings. You would think America would have grown tired of such repetitions by now. Yet, as the video of George Floyd’s murder hit social media this week, the trajectory of its journey through mass consciousness has been predictable. We’ve traveled this path before.

“Without the images, no one would be prepared to believe the violence we’ve witnessed.” Bryan Stevenson said these words as he described the events surrounding the murder of Emmett Till sixty-five years ago and the subsequent surge of the civil rights movement in a video made for TIME Magazine. For those who may not know the history, Emmett Till was a Black teenager brutally beaten and shot to death by two grown, White men in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman. His body was dumped in the Tallahatchie River by his killers, who were acquitted of the crime by an all-white jury. His mother, Mamie Till, allowed photographs of Emmet Till’s unrecognizable body to be published in Jet Magazine to show the world the depth of the violence her son endured and by extension, the violence that black Americans everywhere experience. Circulated widely, the images provoked strong responses on all sides of the political spectrum. Despite the publicity Till’s murder generated, there were no shortage of similar murders to follow, and they persist to this day. Although imagery of Black death is packaged very differently in 2020 than in the 1955, the conversation and public response are eerily similar.

Collage by Cara Hagan

In our digitized world, it is much harder to avoid controversial content than it used to be. People for whom the threat of racially-motivated discrimination or injury is a persistent risk to living in the world unwittingly experience trauma and re-traumatization as videos of Black death are shared across platforms and media outlets. Even if one chooses not to watch the video of George Floyd’s murder, the volume of memes being generated alone means that online spaces guarantee marginalized people will be triggered again and again. In response to Floyd’s murder and the release of the footage, Black people share personal stories of violence inflicted upon them, memes calling for justice, lists of appropriate actions to be taken, and opinion pieces, like this one. White people on the other hand, seem to exist in three camps.

The first are those who assume the victim did something to deserve to die, or that the cause of death was exaggerated. “He shouldn’t have resisted arrest,” they say (George Floyd didn’t resist arrest, by the way). An example of this would be the image posted by a Bethel County, Washington High School wrestling coach this week. A photograph of the coach with another person’s knee on his neck is coupled with the words, “Not dead yet I’m doing this for Are [sic] police officers the media is a race baiting machine and I’m tired of it I’m going to speak out every time if you don’t like that I’m sorry but I love All people. Wake up America.” The post has been shared almost 15,000 times over the past twenty-four hours. Memes have started to appear and will lead to further perpetuation of the sentiments in the aforementioned post. People in this group will watch the video of the murder many times over to find details that reinforce their stance.

The second camp consists of those White people who claim to be appalled at the idea that a Black man could be murdered in broad daylight by a police officer, while people pass by on the street. “I can’t believe this is happening in 2020,” they say. They respond to the video itself, and posts about the video with sad or angry emojis. Maybe they call on their White friends to “do better.” Nevertheless, we saw liberal white privilege on display this week through the video of Christian Cooper having the cops called on him by Amy Cooper, a white woman upset at being told to leash her dog in Central Park. It is likely that many of those same people who claim to be liberal Americans outraged at the excessive murder of Black people would either stand silent in the face of injustice if confronted with it, or outright leverage their privilege to the harm of people of color if their comfort depended on it.

The third camp engages in a cacophony of silence. They are as complicit in the murder of black people in our country, as those who pull the trigger (or use their hands, or their phones to kill). They know that the status quo serves them, but do nothing to acknowledge or change it.

If like me, you happen to be someone who enjoys horror movies, it is likely you’ve heard someone say, “I can’t watch scary movies.” Still, George Floyd’s murder has been viewed over one million times since it was first posted on May 25th and that number continues to climb. I’m certain that some of those same people who don’t like seeing demons, monsters, and aliens in the movies have watched George Floyd die and haven’t flinched. We are desensitized to viewing Black death, so prevalent it is in both fictional media and real life. I often find myself wondering if videos of Black death feed some sort of voyeuristic craving in our society. And I often answer myself: “yes.”

I may not be alone in wishing that George Floyd’s murder was the last one ever to be broadcast in such a fashion. But unlike the movies, which often end neatly and provide some closure for the stories they tell, we know this is not the case. I understand the need for people to know the truth. I understand the need to raise awareness. Had there been no video, how many would have believed George Floyd didn’t deserve to die? Similarly, If we hadn’t seen Amy Cooper call the cops on Christian Cooper with our own eyes, would anyone have believed he was right? Would he still be alive today? Instead of answers, I am only left with questions. How many times do you need to see people die on screen to believe they are being murdered? How many more videos need to circulate before meaningful change is made? How many more occasions for these videos to exist are necessary before justice is more common than injustice? We’ve been doing this for over 100 years. Since then, there have been countless opportunities to not only believe black people when they tell you what it’s like to be Black in America, but to do something about it. Let’s start today.

If you desire to be an ally, here are some things you can do to assist in the struggle for Black lives:

Boycott business, organizations, and events that support racist ideologies or actively fund white supremacy. With a little research, you may be surprised to find that some of your favorite establishments will end up on the list.

Educate yourself about the history of injustices faced by people of color. Don’t ask your friends and colleagues of color to do it for you. Acknowledge patterns of abuse and oppression. Seek to understand why people of color are angry, then let that knowledge influence your interactions in public and private spaces.

Leverage your privilege for good. Use your position, funds, platforms, and advantages to fight for black liberation, reparations, and infrastructure to support Black communities.

Insist that your family, circle of friends, and colleagues practice anti-racism. If someone you know and love devalues Black people, insist that they do some self-reflection and education.

Elect public officials who are actively anti-racist. From your school board, to country sheriffs, to the President of the United States, make sure your vote is cast for people who will serve all citizens and protect their right to live. Hold your officials accountable when they’re not doing that job to the best of their ability.

Value owned, operated, and historically Black businesses, places of worship, neighborhoods, cultural and educational institutions. These are important facets of our cities and towns that provide safe spaces for marginalized people and add value to our communities.

Empower your children to be emphatically and unapologetically anti-racist. Invest in sound resources that expand their awareness and aid their growth in this way.

And above all, believe Black people when they tell you they experience racism. Don’t make us say it again and again. Assume that we will experience it, until White society repairs the structures that help racism thrive. As Angela Davis says, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”



Cara Hagan

Working at the intersections of movement, words, digital space, contemplative practice, community. University prof, community organizer, film festival curator.