Op-Ed: The video of Tyre Nichols’ murder is unbearable. But it shows why we need stories of both Black pain — and joy
The murder of Tyre Nichols and the individual and collective reckoning we have all encountered — whether or not to witness the brutal images of his final moments — sent me back to an issue that I’ve been wrestling with for two decades.
In the fall of 2001, I started writing the seeds of a book project with the intention of examining the multigenerational reverberations of my great-grandfather’s lynching. I started writing this story before the #BlackJoy movement, but even back then I faced some resistance.
“Haven’t we heard enough race stories?” a friend asked. Besides, he said, “you’re so funny. Write something funny.”
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Even my mother was concerned that I was barking up the wrong tree. “Why not explore Mama’s side of the family?” she asked. I wanted to climb the unknown tree on which our ancestor, her father’s father — Burt Bridges — was lynched in Mississippi in 1904. I wanted to resurrect him not to sensationalize the horror, or make white people feel guilty, but because I became obsessed with Burt Bridges, the man.
Some of my great-grandmother Mary’s last words before she died in 1982 were about how beautiful of a man he was, how in love they were, how white folks lynched him because they thought he was “uppity.” Using these morsels she gave us, I attempted to capture some essence of Mary’s and Burt’s passion, worth and humanity on the page. And in weaving their story with mine, I sought to fill holes in my own heart, my own psyche.
They were more than victims, worth more than the virulence of white supremacy. And so am I.
It took me a long time to finish this work that was both devastating and life-giving. By the time my book was published in the spring of 2021, Black people were tired of what some deem “trauma porn.” They were exhausted by the pandemic and the police killing of George Floyd (a trauma record on repeat).
On all social media platforms, I was seeing some version of No more #BlackTrauma stories! and #BlackJoy, #BlackExcellence and #BlackGirlMagic only. These notions were created in opposition to racism — in essence, a trauma response — and I embrace them. There’s always some manner of “Black-girl magic” and “Black-boy joy” stirring in my house — in pots and pans, creating and parenting, loving and playing.
I do wonder, though, if calling for a cease and desist of stories that examine historical and present-day trauma could slip easily into the sludge of oppression. Could such a stance be twisted into a distant cousin of campaigns hellbent on squashing any semblance of critical race theory in our kids’ classrooms? The erasure of history and truth knows no bounds.
Certainly, it’s our prerogative to protect our mental health, to seek living over constant images of death. Which is why when the Memphis Police Department released the video Friday of its police officers chasing, tasing and beating 29-year-old Tyre Nichols, I chose not to watch it. The viral announcement that the video would go public seemed to echo the old newspaper announcements I’ve read about that advertised public viewing opportunities of the lynching and burning of Black people in the Jim Crow South.
Ending qualified immunity for police against civil lawsuits is one way to reduce misconduct and increase accountability.
Unable to sleep the night of the video release, I decided to tiptoe around the periphery of what I consider a modern-day lynching — Black cops or not. I watched Memphis City Council Chairman Martavius Jones get so choked up during an interview with CNN anchor Don Lemon that he couldn’t speak for long minutes. I watched Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, describe the awful aches she felt in her stomach at the same moment the officers were torturing her son and I thought: What is my trauma fatigue in comparison to this woman’s pain? I still have my Black son, though this country makes that feel like a privilege.
Ultimately, I am on the side of Mamie Till-Mobley, who insisted that the world see the monstrosity of what racists had done to her son Emmett Till. I am on the side of filmmakers such as Chinonye Chukwu, director of the movie “Till,” and Marissa Jo Cerar, director of the TV series “Women of the Movement.” Both works follow Till-Mobley in the aftermath of her son’s murder, but also capture the beauty of their subjects and the empowering activism that rose out of tragedy.
I don’t want an end to these stories. I want all stories — well-told. I want the joy of who Burt Bridges, George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile and Tyre Nichols were to shine bright enough to burn this prolonged cycle of lynching.
Cassandra Lane is the author of “We Are Bridges: A Memoir” and editor-in-chief of L.A. Parent. @casslanewrites
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