Traditionally in black American communities when someone dies, before the spirit-filled homegoing service and solemn funeral procession to the final resting place, there are those quiet moments in the embalming room between the deceased and the mortician, the dead and the artist.
If death was by stroke and the face of the deceased is disfigured, the artist will mold the features so that one side does not sag. If there has been discoloration, then make-up is carefully applied to match the deceased’s skin-tone as closely as possible. If the death was quick and violent, then the grimace of pain that tends to stay long after they have taken their last breath is smoothed into a neutral expression, and, if possible, a peaceful smile.
My family has owned a funeral business for over 60 years and from the time I was a small child, I was taught about the sacredness of dead, black bodies and how we care for them. We make a promise to the souls of black folks who once dwelled there: We will honor and protect your body, your humanity, because you no longer can.
It is through this lens that I watched images of Michael Brown’s body splashed across both traditional and social media after then Ferguson, Mo. police officer Darren Wilson gunned him down in a hail of bullets. Brown's state-sanctioned killing quickly became a salacious headline for some mainstream outlets and his post-mortem dignity was easily traded for page views.
Even as I bore witness to his death in my own writing, a part of me still screamed:
Cover him up.
Cover him up.
Protect his body.
I experienced these same feelings of dread and anxiety upon reading the news that Ti-Rock Moore, a white artist from New Orleans, had created a life-sized portrayal of a lifeless Michael Brown for debut solo exhibit at Chicago’s Gallery Guichard, entitled, Confronting Truths: Wake Up!
Describing her work as “conceptual” and “reactive,” and sharing that others have described it as “courageous” and “avante-guard” Moore insists that she “honestly and frankly” explores white privilege through her “acute awareness of the unearned privilege that [her] white skin holds.”
Though there are other features at the exhibit –- a confederate flag, shackles from a slave, a black Statue of Liberty, a noose hanging from a neon sign, an “I Can’t Breathe” sign --- Brown’s likeness is, by far, the most controversial offering.
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