In this short essay, I analyze a poem and performance that I wrote as a part of the Opening Session for the 2017 National Communication Association annual convention. In the poem, which is a response to and inspired by Ed Mabrey's “The Libretto of the Opera: Death of a Black Boy,” I take us through a day on social media and the news cycle after a Black boy has been murdered by police officers. The poem illuminates dangerous social media responses centered in whiteness post-Black death in the United States. In the essay, I explicate my process for writing this performance—centering the need for reflexivity instead of white guilt so that white people can do clearly antiracist work. I end by focusing on academia's potential for leaving a stronger and more positive legacy.
The curtains open.
Cue Fox News, Breaking News Tone
Enter stage far right: Chorus of white women softly singing, “We really need to get all of the information.”
Cut in voices of white mothers getting louder and louder, “We really should not worry about the death of a thug, there are so many young kids dying in Africa.”
Chorus of white women softly singing, “He must have done something, an officer wouldn't kill someone because of nothing.”
Vibrato streams up from the large mass chorus belting out, “Well he shouldn't have been selling loosies and besides, if he wasn't so fat, he wouldn't have died.”
Soprano streams up from the large mass chorus stating, “Well he shouldn't have resisted arrest.”
Altos blend in with them sharing, “Well, he was playing really loud music!”
Basses sing the tune, “Well, he was carrying Skittles and an Arizona iced tea. I think he was pretty tall.”
Sopranos stream back with, “I believe he might have stolen something.”
Not to be outdone:
Cue chorus of white men loudly singing, “Stand your ground.” Repeat. Six times.
Director's note: Make sure to have the following moment drown out voices coming from any other space.
Ends with a bang of the percussion section and the voices of all repeating, “#AllLivesMatter. #BlueLivesMatter.”
Exit stage far right to the sound of Fox News, Breaking News Tone
Cue MSNBC Breaking News Tone
Cue Facebook notification noises.
The clicking sounds of keys feels overwhelming.
Enter stage far left: the “good” white liberal and the “better” white liberal.
Cue shock that a Black boy has been killed by police.
The good white liberal sings, “Oh my gosh, how did this happen? This doesn't seem real.”
The better white liberal sings, “What is happening in the world?”
Cue them sharing the video feed of the Black boy who has been killed. Type #BlackLivesMatter without knowing who began it. Share.
Guitars play the dings of an oven.
Harps strum while they return to coffee and sheet cake and morning nonsense chatter.
Cue Facebook notification noises. The video gets many likes.
Piano 1 and Piano 2 play the confusion sounds of what a “like” means.
Turn up the volume on the video of the Black boy who has been killed.
Cue a large projection screen to show the live video feed of him being murdered on repeat.
Cello 1 plays the Facebook sharing sound over and over and over and over. Cello 2 takes over so as not to overwhelm Cello 1.
Director's note: All actors in this scene should not be distinct from one another. Perhaps computer screen headpieces.
Continue projecting the live video feed of him being murdered on repeat.
Show no regard for the folks who fear this happening to their bodies every day.
Percussions play police sirens in the background.
Actor playing main white liberal continues about as though nothing has happened.
Sheet cake and coffee solves.
Exit stage far left to the sound of MSNBC Breaking News Tone
Cue CNN Breaking News Tone
Reporter sings, “We need body cams”
Enter protesters belting out, “People do not believe the footage from body cams.”
Reporter sings, “And dash cams should be on at all times.”
Protesters continue to belt out, “Officers have been propping up the hood to block dash cams.
Reporter sings, “Video footage will ensure indictment.”
Protesters continue to belt out, “It never has before.”
Cue violins to play out the reporters' confusion over flaws in the legal system.
Cellos change the station.
ESPN Tone sounds out.
Cue a new faceless and nameless reporter,
The reporter's vibrato is powerful as he sings, “Kaepernick needs to stop kneeling and just play football.”
Guitar strings play ESPN Tone.
The lights go down.
Director's note: End abruptly. Move on as though it never happened. Wait for the next time. Cue disbelief and feigned shock ahead of time.
WE NEED TO DO BETTER
It was my intention to leave the academy. I felt disconnected from my body and from the communities I am a part of that I initially set out to do research with and on. As someone whose scholarship centers the body as a primary modality of research, I was left feeling desperate. Yet, when Amber Johnson and Javon Johnson reached out to me and asked me to join the Opening Session of the 2017 National Communication Association (NCA) annual convention as a respondent, I felt the same excitement and possibilities that I did when I began graduate school. I was not sure what had I agreed to, but I knew that I would be honored to be a part of a panel they were planning. Amber and Javon have unique ways of centering art and social justice in their academic work. Their bodies of/and work inspire me as I make my way through the academy. I was asked to respond to Ebd Mabrey's poem “The Libretto of the Opera: Death of a Black Boy.”
On my first read through of Ed Mabrey's “The Libretto of the Opera,” I worried about taking up too much space as a white person responding to a poem that spoke to the murders of Black boys by police officers. On my second read through of Ed Mabrey's “The Libretto of the Opera,” I worried about not doing justice to his work with my response. On my third read through of Ed Mabrey's “The Libretto of the Opera,” I examined my own white guilt and avoidance of addressing this topic head on in front of a largely academic crowd. I had centered my own fear of being perceived as racist. I had allowed that fear to outweigh the intersectional and antiracist work I claimed I wanted to do. I was hiding from the important labor of social justice out of that feeling of fear. In that fear, I found a space for reflection and the seedlings of truth that I felt compelled to speak about. And in that space, I was also reminded that reflection does not happen within a vacuum. Conversations about reflexivity and intersectionality strengthen my understandings of power. Mentors and friends have given me room to be vulnerable in understanding my own positionality and power. These vulnerable spaces create openings where fear can become productive and meaningful.
The power of fear can be overwhelming. For me, it is also very physical—freezing me and preventing me from moving forward. But fear, both psychological and physical, can be an indicator of the importance of a topic/project. And in that pause, one can utilize one's own reflexivity for creating powerful work instead of allowing fear to hold one back. Bernadette Marie Calafell writes, “in my mind reflexivity referred to an intersectional critique, an illumination of power, and acknowledging one's relationality to all of this.”1 As a scholar–artist–activist invested in using my body, voice, and privilege to form lasting impacts within and beyond the academy, I heeded Calafell's call to be reflexive in my response to Mabrey's poem. Although my fear did not go away in the moments of performing and beyond, a different fear fuels my work here. It is the fear of staying silent as people are being killed. It is a fear of failing to recognize rhetorical violence after the physical violence is done. It is a fear of not saying what needs to be said. And so, to honor Mabrey's work, I modeled my response after his poem and revealed the notorious white responses that flood my Facebook feed and various news outlets when police officers murder Black bodies.
After responding to “The Libretto of the Opera,” it is clear that “Our Legacy, Our Relevance: Engaging the Verbs of Social Justice as We Trace Our Legacies and Our Relevance” is the type of work NCA needs. Collaborations with various artists and academics will advance social justice and move the academy to a place where it can have a more positive legacy on all of the bodies that go through and/or become a part of it.