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Arts and Culture

How The Culture Of Black Pain Can Both Hurt And Help Black Americans

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

At the Grammys last month, there was a special guest during the performance of rapper Lil Baby's song "The Bigger Picture."

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TAMIKA MALLORY: It's a state of emergency. My people, it's time we stand. It's time we demand the freedom that this land promises. President Biden...

KELLY: That is activist Tamika Mallory. This was a protest song calling for justice in light of police brutality and systemic racism, so Mallory showing up might make sense.

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MALLORY: This is not a trend. This is our plight until freedom.

KELLY: But some people were not happy about it, including Samaria Rice, the mother of Tamir Rice, the unarmed 12-year-old boy who was shot and killed by a white police officer in Cleveland in 2014. Samaria Rice publicly rebuked Mallory, among others, saying the activist was trying to gain fame by, quote, "benefiting off the blood of families who have lost loved ones." Tamika Mallory is not the first to be accused of profiting off of Black pain. In fact, there's a history of it. We have Debra Walker King on the line. She's written extensively about the idea of Black pain, how it has been perceived and wielded. She's a professor at the University of Florida, and she joins us now from her home in Gainesville. Professor King, welcome.

DEBRA WALKER KING: Thank you very much.

KELLY: So let's start with the term Black pain. How do you define it? What exactly does it mean?

WALKER KING: I look at it in two different ways. I look at Black pain as an experience of bodily harm, and I look at it as a metaphor. It functions to define and access that which is not American.

KELLY: Explain that. What does this have to do with being American?

WALKER KING: For four centuries, African Americans have been despised, have been wounded, have been looked at as people without bodies of pain. They can't experience pain. As a metaphor, the Black body absorbs all of the pain that Americans face, and therefore, it becomes a situation of, that's them, not me. Toni Morrison talks about it in this way. She says that basically, anyone who comes to America can become united through their racial identity. Those who are in Europe are never seen, or weren't seen, as white. They were seen as Irish or English. But when they come to America, that identity is bonded by color, by race. And the further away from that which is not acceptable they can be, the more American they become.

KELLY: Let's make this specific because I want to make sure I've got my head wrapped around it. Is there a particular example you have come across where you felt like the pain of Black people was being manipulated, was being used?

WALKER KING: Look at lynching, for instance, where we find a lot of white people surrounding a Black person who is being lynched. They celebrate the wounding, the hurt and the harm. Well, what that does is it others the Black body. That is not my body. That is the body of otherness. That's the body that we reject.

KELLY: If I may, let me bring us back to now and things unfolding this year. What was on your mind as you watched that back-and-forth over the Grammys play out?

WALKER KING: The first time I saw it, I was like, oh, my. Then I started thinking about it. And I said, Tamika Mallory has been for 25 years in this fight against police brutality, having lost the father of her child to police brutality. This is not something new for her. She has a platform that others don't have, and she has used that platform to bring acknowledgment of not the pain but the hurt. The hurt is what is long-lasting.

KELLY: Yeah. So did you feel she was within her rights?

WALKER KING: Yes, I definitely do.

KELLY: And, of course, no one would want to criticize Samaria Rice in any way for how she feels it as the mom of Tamir Rice. I mean, I think it will strike people. This is a Black woman publicly criticizing another Black woman. It underscores that grief may be collective, pain may be collective, but the ways that Black Americans process and respond to things is going to be very individual.

WALKER KING: Well, if you listen to what Samaria Rice says, she's not attacking another Black woman specifically.

KELLY: She rebuked Tamika Mallory.

WALKER KING: Yes, she did. But I think beneath that rebuke is her saying that there was a commercializing of trauma going on here that is in many ways diminishing the effectiveness of the policy that she wants and that others want to have seen. I don't agree with that, but I think that's what she is saying.

KELLY: And how do you see - is there a line between wanting to raise awareness, wanting to be able to express collective pain and not having it cross the line into something that does become commercialized?

WALKER KING: What we're talking about has been commodified for years. But the Black body has always been used to enhance the commercial or the financial benefits of America. Whether the body died or not does not matter. So it's almost impossible to extract trauma from the commodification of Black pain because it is inherent in what is American.

KELLY: We're, of course, having this conversation in the week that we got the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial. It was, of course, the killing of George Floyd that set so many events in motion over this past year. We had George Floyd's brother Philonise Floyd on the show this week. He talked about how his new path in life is to help people. And it struck me. You know, he would, of course, never have wished for what happened to his brother to have happened. It has galvanized him into raising his voice to do what he can to keep there from being more George Floyds. And it made me wonder and think about Black pain and why so often that seems to need to be the first ingredient to moving our country forward.

WALKER KING: George Floyd's murder was different from what we have been seeing in the past. Instead of just seeing the Black body dead or wounded, we saw the Black body, a human being, dying. And with that, we were offered an opportunity for an oppositional reading of where Black bodies have stood in the past. And that's the first step of moving beyond the pain.

George Floyd's call to his mama humanized him. There was no way around that. We all have mothers. It also began to make us not only look at the pain and distance ourselves. It entered into the second step of moving beyond pain, which is to acknowledge hurt and, in this case, our own personal hurt and our own personal assault at witnessing that. And then the third stage of what it did - it demanded a response. And that's what you're seeing George Floyd's brother doing, and he's responding with resistance and action.

KELLY: Debra Walker King, professor at the University of Florida and author of the book "African Americans And The Culture Of Pain." Thank you for speaking with us.

WALKER KING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.