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Breonna Taylor slavery in life slavery in death reckoning with the zombification of blackness

Slavery in Life, Slavery in Death: Reckoning with the Zombification of Blackness

Like the zombies of Haitian mythology, Breonna Taylor has been resurrected and trivialized, her death turned into an opportunity for glib commodification.

By the time I learned about the existence of the New York Times’ documentary The Killing of Breonna Taylor, a few days before it was released, I was already tired. Breonna Taylor had already been paraded around by her oppressors as a pitiful casualty of her partner’s failure to abide by the system under which she was killed without consequence, and in her death,  was shaped into a gruesome commodity. Her death was followed by months of memeification, people turning the calls for justice into jokes and snappy captions for their Instagram posts, people using her name to direct traffic to their OnlyFans pages and jewelry shops. Via tweets and pictures, products and paraphernalia, she was treated no different than the outlaws whose bodies were propped up in open caskets outside saloons for communal photo ops. She wasn’t given the chance of a private mourning, nor her family the opportunity to cry for her beyond the hungry lens of clout. 

Breonna Taylor was yanked from her rest over and over and over. In every possible way her passing and her image — her very death itself — was transmuted, transformed, and replayed wherever it could create profit. To this day, she has still gotten no rest.

The original myth of the zombie finds its roots in Haitian folklore, in slavery to be exact, formed through beliefs brought over from West Africa. Slavery under French colonial rule was so violent and brutal — whippings, mutilations, and burning of body parts were more commonplace for slaves than regular meals — that death was thought of as the only escape. Death, the enslaved believed, would return them to lan guinée, or Africa, where they would finally be free. 

However, many feared that peace would never come. Lan guinée represented an irreversible respite from the horrors of slavery, but should they be yanked from rest before they made it there, they would once again be in the hands of masters and trapped in a servient un-death from which there was little chance of escape. They could also be denied entry into the afterlife if they had offended or otherwise wronged the spirit who would lead them in. They could only ever hope for the justice they’d been so consistently and violently refused in life.

Justice, though, doesn’t exist for the slave. As such, the Haitian zombie represents, among other things, a fear of the denial of return to freedom — to become a zombie is to exist in a fatalistic and colonialist Hell in which the enslaved will always remain enslaved, even long after the heart stops beating. Denied salvation from the abuses of slavery, these zombies become the empty vessels that enslaved Africans were already seen as: blank-faced servants with no chance of any homecoming, on any plane of existence.  

Every time I think about Breonna Taylor, I can’t help but think about the Haitian zombie. 

I can’t help but think about the meme formats that arose after her murder became national news, with people turning the “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!” label into pleas for arrest that were as shallow as a kiddie pool, or the T-shirts and the MAGA parody hats LeBron James tried to peddle in her name.

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Lili Reinhart of Riverdale fame got in on the action too, egregiously invoking Breonna’s death. “Now that my sideboob has gotten your attention,” Reinhart said in a caption to a topless picture she posted on Instagram, “Breonna Taylor’s murderers have not been arrested. Demand justice.” Rapper and 45-year-old man 50 Cent (whose net worth is estimated to be a cool $30 million) also felt he should speak out. His grand contribution to the conversation? A tweet of a Wheel of Fortune board spelling out the call to arrest the cops, complete with all the necessary hashtags. This was just a month, of course, before he’d meme Tory Lanez shooting Megan Thee Stallion and participate in the violence of ungendering a Black woman. He would soon after downplay the seriousness of the situation and then, after catching more blowback than he’d expected, go on to release an apology that really and truly only serves as an apology if you’re one of his fans desperate to absolve him of any wrongdoing.

And then we have BreonnaCon, an almost comical (in the sense that you can only choose to either laugh or scream) example of how Taylor’s memory and impact has been so grossly exploited. The event, which took place at the end of August and lasted for four days, claimed to be dedicated to information and resources that would help guide the movement in arresting her killers. A flyer, which used Taylor’s image as a faded-out backdrop to the influencers and celebrities who were in support and would be in attendance, advertised the convention with a focus on “Beauty, Money, and Justice,” — subtitled TaylorMade — and the action items listed included pray-ins, a mass demonstration, financial literacy seminars, and — fucking hell — a barbecue titled the Bre-B-Cue (GET IT!?). A Bre-B-Cue was supposed to help somehow.

That’s the level at which BreonnaCon was working, and, oh my God, were the organizers proud. They even claimed it was for the sake of empowerment.

When the criticisms of this gauche absurdity erupted, Tamika Mallory, the co-founder of the convention’s parent organization Until Freedom, defended the choice by adding that, on top of it being a resource, it was also supposed to be a grand opportunity for community-building. She even went as far as claiming Taylor’s grieving mother was in support of it.

 

If you’re still gasping for breath or trying to figure out whether this is some sick joke, I don’t blame you. Imagine if you were told there was going to be MLKon, and that, in honor of this civil rights icon, all the rooms reserved in local hotels had balconies. Imagine if there was a Harriet TubMeeting, with some sort of Underground Railroad funhouse. Line up and buy tickets now for Malcolm Xhibition!

That’s the level at which BreonnaCon was working, and, oh my God, were the organizers proud. They even claimed it was for the sake of empowerment.

Whether via social media or shameless grifting events, the refusal to let Breonna Taylor rest is egregious and traumatizing. Resurrected and trivialized over and over, her violent death has been turned into an opportunity for glib commodification. Much like the zombies of Haitian mythology, Taylor has been yanked from the grave to help people sell T-shirts, acquire likes and retweets, to promote themselves as avatars of criminal justice reform in the shallowest possible sense. 

At the end of the day, it would be damn near impossible to convince me or so many others that these efforts stem from any legitimate mourning of Taylor, or even a sincere investment in using her murder to enact change. Where Mamie Till displayed the mutilated body of her son to drive home the reality of anti-Black violence in the United States, she did so to make a salient point about Emmett’s lynching. However, these opportunistic ghouls are routinely yanking Breonna from her grave in order to mutilate her body and memory all over again, to put her to work for their own selfish interests, as some have even begun to do with Emmett Till.

Often we hear people decry the criticism of the recently dead, begging that we wait until their bodies are no longer warm to discuss their legacies in any honest terms. Yet, when it comes to Breonna Taylor, it seems as though she has been exhumed again and again for the purposes of little more than self-promotion. She has become the servant of clout chasers, T-shirt makers, memers, and celebrities, all of whom wish to trot out her body and her family’s pain so that they can advance themselves. 

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That she is only the latest in a long line of Black figures zombified for the benefit of liberals and self-proclaimed radicals only underscores what a horrific desecration this is. For so long we’ve seen leaders like MLK have their iconography transformed into whatever symbol whatever side utilizing their image needs them to be, whether they be the means to a snide remark about white moderates or a condemnation or demonization of militancy and violent direct action. 

We’ve seen non-Black people cushion their anti-Blackness with quotes from Fred Hampton Jr. and Huey P. Newton. In attempts to show how far their capacity to care goes, liberals will contend that Harriet Tubman’s place is on the money that was used to purchase and sell her, while people like Shameik Moore profess that Rosa Parks should’ve taken a cab instead of the bus in a misguided attempt to promote the support of Black businesses, just as Hillary Clinton shoves Parks into her campaign logo. Even radical Black men, lauded for their organizing and the work they’ve done in such spaces, will summon Malcolm X from the grave to use as a shield to maneuver around violence they’ve caused and perpetuated against Black women and other marginalized genders.

And soullessness is par for the course when it comes to how we milk the concept of Black death, as well as the memory of the Black dead.

It’s important not to fall into this trap as radicals, especially as Black folks are encouraged to resurrect those figures by whom the struggle towards liberation is defined. However, too often, we are pressured into turning our elders into malleable and ultimately empty vessels, substituting names for true activism. It often offers some sense of encouragement to see ourselves proudly invoked by those who we know to be our exploiters, but overcoming that urge is critical. We need to understand that when anti-Black corporations use the work of dead Black artists or the achievements and traumas of dead Black activists to make their own money, they have no interest in our well-being and freedom; rather, they understand that these voices and images are a calculated and profitable road leading to the ultimate bottom line.

With this in mind, there comes something else to consider: the feeling that our ancestors and recent dead alike are begging, pleading to find a peace beyond the perpetual trauma and struggle that colored their time on earth — that they might be hoping to find rest apart from whatever performativity has now infected and defined their legacies.

But, of course, the service never ends, and the rest never comes. Advertisements, T-shirts, memes: all of these continue to tramp on the sacred ground in which they’re buried, in which they’ve been promised a silent sleep. Just as worms and bacteria feed on the flesh of our dead, vampiric and exploitative culture feasts upon our souls, fueling itself and degrading us in the process. And with each passing year and each subsequent meal, the beast only becomes more insatiable.  

And soullessness is par for the course when it comes to how we milk the concept of Black death, as well as the memory of the Black dead.

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What is justice to a Black person in a world that is fundamentally anti-Black? What justice can be expected for those who have been ripped from their homelands? What justice can we imagine when the deceased are denied the chance to return to their families in spirit, because their bodies and their memories are now mere products for consumption by a culture that kidnapped, exploited, and murdered them in the first place? Born into violence, stamped with violence, defined by the violence done unto them — what justice exists for Black persons, and Black people as a whole?

What does “rest in power” mean when, even in death, we are continuously denied that power?

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Jude Casimir sometimes writes things, and her passions include movies, books, history, and Communism. She is constantly engaging in work that addresses topics such as race, disability, class, sexuality and their frequent intersections. She graduated from Worcester State University and lives in Massachusetts.

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