“Can you be BLACK and Look at This?”: Reading the Rodney King Video(s)

Emily Gilbert and Ishaan Chatterjee

“Can you be BLACK and Look at This”: Reading the Rodney King Video(s) by Elizabeth Alexander

Overview

Can you be BLACK and Look at This”: Reading the Rodney King Video(s) is an essay written by Elizabeth Alexander and published in 1994. Alexander draws from Rodney King’s recorded subjection to police brutality as the central driving force of her claim regarding African Americans’ struggles with racial self-identification and society’s perception of black bodies.

The Rodney King case was highly debated and controversial; it was even the cause of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. King’s recorded beating went viral and was recirculated, developing an aura of sensationalism around the case that leads Alexander to deem it a national spectacle.

Alexander states, “By presenting an archive of a series of cases I articulate the ways in which a practical memory exists and crucially informs African Americans about the lived realities of how violence and its potential informs our understanding of our individual selves as a larger group” (Alexander 3). In this statement, Alexander discloses the main components of her essay, in which she discusses the idea of such a “spectacle” and unveils the significance and effects of being black and witnessing various forms of brutality and violence against other blacks, as well as the message relayed by these kinds of exhibitions.

Historical and Cultural Context

Alexander’s essay was specifically crafted with the Rodney King case in mind. In 1991, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) followed King in high-speed car chase after he was caught speeding on a freeway in Los Angeles. The significance of this event comes from the videotape of King’s beating by LAPD officers confident in King’s resistance to arrest. The video went viral and was recirculated, which is why Alexander uses this event as one of multiple examples to prove that, as she states, “Black bodies in pain for public consumption have been an American national spectacle for centuries” (Alexander 2). The culture at the time of Alexander’s writing involved deteriorating societal race relations, an increase in police brutality incidents, and an inherent frustration regarding the American ideals. Major events from the 1990’s including the ongoing HIV/AIDs outbreak, the O.J. Simpson case, and Mike Tyson’s rape trial influenced the creation of “Can you be BLACK and Look at This”, a fitting culmination of the travesties against African-Americans coming to light. These events, specifically the O.J Simpson case that exposed the sharp divide present in American racial relations, brought about an atmosphere of societal tension. The media’s obsession with the Simpson trial was a clear indicator that the hype around the racial aspects of the case carried over to greater society, as a prominent black figure was put forward for investigation. In addition, the HIV/AIDs outbreak was portrayed in the media as being directly associated with the African-American community. Once Magic Johnson and Arthur Ashe, two notable African-American athletes, revealed that they were HIV positive, it furthered the image of the illness as a “dirty” one with a strong negative stigma. The culmination of events such as these, where race was more focused on than actual issue at hand, led to the concern that “ [w]ithout deliberate and conscientious effort on the part of all, race will be no less significant in the 21st century” (Hall 17). This concern served up the perfect motivation for Elizabeth Alexander’s battle-cry which was a yearning for change and attention to the social travesties impacting the United States.

Fig. 1. Riots erupt in Los Angeles following the release of the Rodney King video by AP and George Holliday, Orange County Register, 17 Nov. 2017, http://www.ocregister.com/2012/04/11/20-years-ago-rodney-king-verdict-sparked-la-riots/.

  

Apart from highlighting the imminent social issues at the time, Alexander’s essay goes on to outline the travails that African-Americans have had to encounter in the centuries prior to the 1990’s. Alexander touches upon the works of past slave narratives such as Frederick Douglass’s personal autobiography to display the extent to which incidents involving brutality and violence against black bodies have persevered over time. The influence of slave narratives and critical race events such as the Civil Rights Movement is clearly evident as similar essays written in outrage towards brutality in each of these time periods are predecessors to Alexander’s work. The specific narrative of these tales of black brutality differs between these eras with regards to the minute details. In Douglass’ piece and the other slave narratives the primary topic was slave beatings, while Alexander’s piece addresses modern manifestations of racism that remain deeply rooted in the past. Rightly so, the references to past instances of black bodies being taken advantage of remains a critical influence on the opinions expressed in “Can you be BLACK and Look at This.” as Alexander strives to depict the timeline of these transgressions.

 

Themes and Style

Elizabeth Alexander repeatedly alludes to multiple overarching ideas in her essay: images of black bodies in pain are often transformed into national spectacles, African Americans are undoubtedly prone to witness these events differently than others, and these images and videos, though gruesome, have reason to be remembered rather than suppressed.

With the incorporation of exemplary cases and personal accounts of experiencing or witnessing brutality, Alexander paints a narrative that addresses the consequences on the African American psyche of viewing such horrific events and what it really means to be black and look at that. Specifically, Alexander includes multiple excerpts from historical time periods that grant  readers a glimpse into the formation of a collective memory among African Americans.  Excerpts from Frederick Douglass’ journal, as briefly aforementioned, discuss a brutal scene in which Douglass witnesses the whipping of another slave for the first time. Douglass is led to believe that he will approach the same fate, and Alexander uses this to exemplify how such an experience “can be taken into the body via witnessing and recorded in memory as knowledge” (Alexander 7). Building on this same idea, Alexander discusses Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, a story that addresses the different ways in which white and black Americans view and perceive acts of violence against blacks. The story describes a white woman, Mrs. Flint, who is able to peacefully view the savage slave beatings, while Brent, a slave, inadvertently commits the occurrences to memory.  A final but important excerpt included by Alexander recognizes a vital idea portrayed in History of Mary Prince. Alexander notes that the main character of History of Mary Prince, when witnessing violence, realizes that “what happens to another threatens her” (Alexander 7), supporting Alexander’s argument that these images of black bodies in pain need be remembered for African Americans’ well-being when living in a prejudiced society.  In all of these past accounts, the narrator talks about his or her viewing of beatings against other African Americans and the absorption of the pain as if it was his or her own, which sets readers up to understand the deep history behind collective trauma, especially when analyzing more modern cases such as those of Emmett Till and Rodney King.

Fig. 2.  Rodney King looks on in this official photo following his beating by AP,  National Public Radio, 17 Nov. 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/04/26/524744989/when-la-erupted-in-anger-a-look-back-at-the-rodney-king-riots.

These historical excerpts are used to comment on past race relations and how these trends have flowed into the present, but Alexander makes her argument even more relevant to modern times with discussions of Emmett Till and Rodney King, two significant cases of police brutality against blacks. In the case of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black boy was both shot and thrown into a river in 1955 for “allegedly whistling” at a white woman working in a convenience store (Alexander 11). Till’s mutilated body was displayed for anyone to see at an open-casket funeral. Thousands visited the funeral and many pictures were spread, serving as another horrifying example of the danger that existed and that still exists for black men, especially younger black men, and women living in America. The incidents of Till and King attest to the modern presence of sensationalism that surrounds images of black bodies in pain, as well as Alexander’s idea when she states, “… in order to survive, black people have paradoxically had to witness their own murder and defilement and then pass along the epic tale of violation” (Alexander 14). The presence of collective memory or identity among African Americans changes the way that they perceive these acts of violence. Whether it be police brutality or slave beatings, these paralyzing events become signals to blacks; they make an attempt to prove that black bodies are “out of place” in American society, and Alexander recognizes that African Americans must listen to these signs to survive. With her use of both historical and modern examples, Alexander implies that this collective memory still affects the way African Americans comprehend these incidents. The presence of media now makes it extremely easy to turn these incidents into spectacles and increase the scale on which such a warning to blacks is conveyed. Many blacks will understandably want to ignore these cases, but Alexander insists that they need remember the aggressive images, videos, and media for their own sake.

Critical Conversation

Regarding “Can you be BLACK and Look at This”, the primary takeaway is that Alexander has defined centuries of violence on African-Americans through a culmination of events leading up to Rodney King’s brutal beating. William Solomon’s piece, Images of Rebellion: News Coverage of Rodney King, refers to Alexander’s perspective as a perfect rallying cry against the centuries of abuse against the African-American population. One of Solomon’s most significant findings in his own research is that mainstream media news avoided any focus on issues of racism associated with events such as the King tape or the HIV outbreak. Solomon claims that this ignorance is a definite root of the police brutality experienced by King, another point made relevant by Alexander. In addition, Ronald Jacobs suggests a similar perspective in Civil Society and Crisis: Culture, Discourse, and the Rodney King Beating, which serves to analyze the public response to the Rodney King beating and then predict how the dynamics of social change relate back to singular, defining events. This perspective coincides with Alexander’s opinion that the Rodney King case was not an isolated experience but rather a continuation of struggles experienced in previous centuries of exploitation. Jacobs similarly pinpoints the 1990’s as the peak of this racial disparity, with the O.J and Mike Tyson cases similarly taken on a media hellstorm on account of race.  

However, the opinion that Alexander evokes throughout Can you be BLACK and Look at This is not necessarily compounded by a totality of scholars. Ronald Hall’s essay, The Ball Curve: Calculated Racism and the Stereotype of African American Men, argues in a different line. Ball analyzes stereotypes that have infiltrated professional sports that show a particular affinity towards African-American males in succeeding athletically over their European-American counterparts. Alexander’s inclusion of sports focuses primarily on it being a medium to further the exploitation of black bodies, but Hall instead sees it as an area where white athletes are actually marginalized in an inherent difference towards African-American basketball players. Meanwhile, Paul Kibbey’s article, Picture Imperfect Manipulating the King Tapes, shifts away from Alexander’s vision that the King incident comes as a culmination of the whole puzzle that has been American race relations over the past 2-3 centuries. Instead, his work focuses on how the individual event was perceived, given that the tape itself was manipulated to make it seem less violent. Kibbey believed that this was an isolated incident and instead focused on the legal aspects of the case with the motivation being avoiding charges in the case of the officers. Overall, most scholars see eye-to-eye with Alexander, acknowledging her disgust and portrayal of the Rodney King incident as a culmination of years upon years of violence against African-Americans, but some instead label her take as an overreaction with controversy over how further instances of police brutality such as King’s will be handled moving forward.

Works Cited

Greenfield, Patricia, and Paul Kibbey. “Picture Imperfect Manipulating the King Tapes.”The Baltimore Sun, 2 Apr. 1993, articles.baltimoresun.com/1993-04-02/news/1993092280_1_slow-motion-freeze-frame-stop-action. Accessed 5 Oct. 2017.

Hall, Ronald E. “The Ball Curve: Calculated Racism and the Stereotype of African American Men.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 32, no. 1, 2001, pp. 104–119. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2668017.

Jacobs, Ronald N. “Civil Society and Crisis: Culture, Discourse, and the Rodney King Beating.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 101, no. 5, 1996, pp. 1238–1272. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2782354.

Solomon, William L., and William S. Solomon. “Images of Rebellion: News Coverage of  Rodney King.” Race, Gender & Class, vol. 11, no. 1, 2004, pp. 23–38. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41675111.

Further Reading

Aymer, Samuel R. “‘I Can’t Breathe’: A Case Study—Helping Black Men Cope with Race-Related Trauma Stemming from Police Killing and Brutality.” Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, vol. 26, no. 3-4, 8 Feb. 2016, pp. 367–376. Taylor & Francis Online, doi:10.1080/10911359.2015.1132828.

Gooding-Williams, Robert. Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising. Routledge, 1993.

Prince, Mary. The History of Mary Prince. Project Gutenberg, 2015.

Stuart, Forrest. “Constructing Police Abuse after Rodney King: How Skid Row Residents and the Los Angeles Police Department Contest Video Evidence.” Vol. 36, no. 2, 2011, pp. 327–353., JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23011895.

Keywords

police brutality, LA Riots, Elizabeth Alexander, Rodney King, Emmett Till, Simi Valley trial