As America’s black communities mourn more lives taken at the hands of police this week, Common and Stevie Wonder have released a protest song with a video that spotlights their pain. “Black America Again” is the title track to Common’s next album and its video opens with the disturbing footage of Alton Sterling’s murder. From there, it zeroes in on the trauma that stirs in black people who repeatedly have to bear witness to these killings in videos that are almost impossible to avoid. Using the footage certainly makes a point, but with that aftershock in mind, you have to wonder if it really was worth including.
After viewing footage of Alton Sterling’s death for the first time, Roxane Gay wrote, “I watched even though it was voyeuristic, and in doing so I made myself complicit in the spectacle of black death.” But she continued: “It is horrifying, and even though I feel so resigned, so hopeless, so out of words in the face of such brutal injustice, I take some small comfort in still being able to be horrified and brought to tears.” Using Sterling’s murder to promote a song feels exploitative, but there’s also value in not allowing anyone to hide from it.
Just this week brought a new video of a black person’s death, and that’s Common’s point: This “cycle of despair” doesn’t end just because we stop watching or no one’s there to film it. Perhaps the only way to rewrite the Black American story, as Stevie Wonder sings of his hope, is to keep bearing witness to both black death and, just as importantly, the ways it affects those black lives still breathing.