On Breonna, Oluwatoyin, & Posthumous Iconography Of Murdered Black People
Today is Oluwatoyin Salu’s birthday. She would have been 20. On social media, images of her are inescapable. Photos of her gracefully posing in a black leotard with glowing skin while her eyes are closed, or donning ginger-cinnamon hair and gold winged eye shadow, dominate my feed. Beautiful images that captured moments of peace, and vibrant self expression that she enjoyed in her young short life. Accompanying these posthumous galleries of pictures that were plucked and right clicked from her public social media accounts by strangers, are pleads from hundreds of social media users to remember her, and wishing her a happy birthday. There are dozens of artistic renderings of these photos, they adorn her head with the halo of early christian art, surround her with beautiful flowers and plants, sometimes against a scenic blue sky with grand cathedral arcs, or neutral colored backdrops. Perfect for sharing on IG with hash-tagged captions and vague mentions of justice.
Yet there is something painful about this out-pour, something about this display made me want to look away. When I am asked to remember her, all I can think about is how this deluge of love, remembrance, support and adoration she has received in death, makes the circumstances of her murder all the more painful, all the more pronounced. The chasm of support she was provided by the community in life vs death is made all the more apparent with each beautified rendering. And there is a chilling cruelty in that.
It is hard to remember the life of Oluwatoyin Salu without being accosted with how (we) her community failed her. How her cries of being sexually assaulted were summarily dismissed and while she was protesting the violent murder of George Floyd she was struggling with shelter instability that eventually led to her seeking assistance from the man who assaulted and killed her. What does it mean to remember Toyin without it being inextricably linked to collective action to address the material conditions that contributed to her sexual assaults and murder? What does this ritual of beautifying the memory of someone that met such brutal end say about us?
This same process has been applied to images of Breonna Taylor but on an even more pervasive and monetized level. In death Breonna Taylor has become many things. She has been made into African royalty replete with beaded hair, gold jewelry and a gilded flower crown. She is a document template one can select from a drop-down menu, a transparent ghostly presence transposed onto the background of flyers promoting events thrown by celebrity activists whose 3D head shots take the forefront. She is an event theme, she is a convention. She is print art that can be purchased on sites like Etsy and Society 6 for prices ranging $8.00-$35.00 USD + shipping and handling to be hung on someone’s wall.
Artist Amy Sherald who famously painted former FLOTUS Michelle Obama, re-imagined Breonna for a much praised Vanity Fair cover. In this depiction, Breonna is regal, she stands erect and triumphantly in a cool flowing, blue empire waist gown, with simple jewelry. Her expression is one of poise and calm. Directly contrasting the theme of Vanity Fair’s September issue titled ‘The Great Fire’ which I can only assume is meant to convey urgency.
Posthumous art commemorating the remembrance of a loved one is not an unheard of ritual in African American culture. Murals memorializing the life and death of slain loved ones and beloved figures, are often created by a community in mourning. However there is a difference in the public good dynamic of community murals as opposed to the monetized imagery created for Black people who were murdered by either police or via interpersonal violence. The surviving family and friends of the dead are constantly accosted by aesthetically pleasing merchandised images of the people violently abducted from their lives. In the hands of social media, and opportunists, this tradition becomes another installment of a Ford-assembly line-like process of transforming a murdered Black person into a ubiquitous trademarked symbol of social justice.
The post death iconography process that select few violently murdered Black people undergo to become symbolic jolts to the American ‘conscious’ is a tradition that can be traced all the way back to Emmett Till. Many people herald Mamie Till’s choice to have an open casket and confront America with an unflinching look of it’s barbarism and cruelty, as an act of bravery instead of being incensed that she was subjected to ever having to make that decision in the first place. That even after doing so her son’s killers were acquitted and his headstone is riddled with bullets till this day. That this tactic is still employed by the surviving loved ones of Black people murdered by state sanctioned executions, in pursuit of a justice that has eluded us since our arrival on US soil. A justice that this system is not designed to deliver.
In death; Breonna and Toyin are queens, they are angels, they are saints, they are cover girls and muses, they are regal and chic and beautiful, they are merchandise, they are screensavers, they are profitable. Their stylized images afford them a bizarre posthumous social capital they were denied while they were alive. They are everything, but done justice. And maybe some part of this process is an unspoken concession of this. Maybe we put crowns on their heads and surround them with symbols of regalia because it is much easier to make them queens and cover girls in the after life than to lay justice on their altars. Maybe we are beautifying their image to beautify our failure(s). But in doing that in such a way, we also obscure the violent material realities that caused their murders, to make their memory more palatable.
This is not to say that imagery should instead depict their violent murders or that their lives should not be celebrated. But it’s hard to see images of Toyin and not be haunted by how she was denied the community embrace she could only find in death. The beauty is rendered bittersweet. Remembrance for the surviving loved ones of Black people who have been violently murdered should be celebratory, solemn, joyous, reflective etc whatever they need to support their mourning process. But for the rest of us, for this murderous white supremacist blood drenched country, and a community that fails to value the Breonnas and Oluwatoyins in our lives( working class Black women and Black women experiencing houselessness in particular) until they are brutally and callously murdered. I’m not so sure that it should be so comfortable, so beautiful, so self indulgent or so profitable.