Entertainment

Watching Black People Die Every Day Is Not Normal

As art continues to imitate life, Richard Wright's recently unearthed masterpiece, 'The Man Who Lived Underground,' is a reminder that there is no counterprogramming for Black people.
KC
Queens, US
April 23, 2021, 7:18pm
Richard Wright
Photo via Getty Images

Every Friday, I try to make sense of the most controversial entertainment news of the week. This week, there was nothing more all-consuming than awaiting the verdict of Derek Chauvin’s trial. Admittedly, no part of me wanted to keep up with the public spectacle of watching a broadcasted trial. We have been reminded about the final moments of George Floyd’s life since last May. 

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When the verdict finally came down, hearing that Chauvin was guilty on all three charges he was being tried for—second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and manslaughter—did not feel like victory. Maybe that's because Chauvin’s conviction does not reunite George Floyd with his family. Nor does it bring back 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, who was killed by Columbus, Ohio police on the same day that Judge Peter Cahill read the verdict—or 20-year-old Daunte Wright, who was gunned down 11 miles away from where Floyd died earlier this month. And it doesn’t ease the pain of losing 13-year-old Adam Toledo, who was revealed in recently surfaced body cam footage to have been holding his hands up at the time that he was fatally shot by Chicago police in March.

None of this includes the uptick in mass shootings that America has seen since January or the sudden death of rap pioneers DMX, Black Rob and Shock G in the span of a few weeks. The heaviness of the past month is as palpable as it was last summer, when we were mourning Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. (We still are.) And as hard as it can be to be a Black journalist who consumes news daily, there's one thing I keep coming back to: We should be wary of who we let eulogize this moment. 

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Partly to evade what feels like a never-ending news cycle of trauma, I've been reading more books lately. And when Barnes & Noble announced that Richard Wright’s estate would be releasing The Man Who Lived Underground this month, 80 years after he wrote it, it felt right on time: Having read Native Son, the story of a Black Chicago teen on the run, I knew The Man Who Lived Underground would interrogate race as only Wright could have, as a Black man navigating it himself in the 1940s. Native Son's themes of race and class continue to be so relevant that when HBO adapted it for television in 2019, the story felt like a page out of the present.

The Man Who Lived Underground, too, might as well have been written yesterday. The book, which is available now via Library of America, is about Fred Daniels, a Black man framed by the police for a double homicide. After being beaten and coerced into confessing to a crime he didn’t commit, he exiles himself to his city’s sewer system. Much of the book revolves around the dichotomy between the two worlds—the one above ground, which regards Daniels as a criminal, and the other below ground, which becomes his refuge.

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Julia Wright, Wright’s daughter, said in an interview with The Guardian that she had been fighting for ten years to get the book published. “The publishers of the day were discounting Black readership, and they didn’t want to unsettle white readership,” Wright said. “Discomfort is too gentle of a word. I think they were afraid of what they read in those pages. It was too close to the truth.” Though her father had once published a short story adapted from the novel, she told The Guardian that she didn't even know of the original manuscript's existence until she stumbled upon it among her father's papers at a Yale University archive in 2010. When she read the unpublished work, which includes scenes of police brutality, she asked the non-profit Library of America—which had published editions of his books before—to step in. She said that she approached them about publishing it after the death of Eric Garner, but that it wasn’t until after George Floyd’s death that they agreed. “Then when George Floyd happened, I knocked at their door again and said, ‘Look here, let’s do it because if we don’t do it now, we never will. And they said, yes, we’ll do it,” she said. 

Critics are heralding The Man Who Lived Underground as just as important as his previous work, which says a lot considering how his other novels Native Son and Black Boy, cross-examine race relations in this country. There is also immense irony in the fact that its release comes a week after news that Simon & Schuster was ceasing distribution of a book written by Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly, one of the police officers involved in the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor. “Like much of the American public, earlier today Simon & Schuster learned of plans by distribution client Post Hill Press to publish a book by Jonathan Mattingly," the publisher said in a statement. "We have subsequently decided not to be involved in the distribution of the book.” 

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Although Mattingly’s distribution deal with Simon & Schuster fell through, the book will still see the light of day via Post Hill Press, which specializes in conservative and Christian titles. In a statement provided to The New York Times, a spokeswoman for Post Hill Press confirmed that it would be business as usual. “His story is important, and it deserves to be heard by the public at large,” she said. “We feel strongly that open dialogue is essential to shining a light on the challenging issues our country is facing.” 

The danger with Post Hill Press insisting on publishing this book is that the cost of fostering “open dialogue”—and the money Mattingly and the publisher stand to gain from it—was Breonna Taylor’s life. There is no “inside story” important enough to justify shooting a person six times in their sleep. There are no “both sides” to this coin, and exploiting the trauma of the Taylor family, which reverberated to Black America and beyond, is throwing salt in an open wound.  

Watching death every day is not normal. Body cams were designed to hold police accountable for abuse and excessive force, but when it comes to the media, they've effectively just provided us with a closer camera angle. I haven’t watched any footage since Philando Castile’s death in 2016, who was also killed by Minneapolis Police. But even that doesn’t rid me of the vicarious traumatization, a term that means you can be traumatized by something just by being exposed to footage or images of it. The people and cities might change, but these stories all end the same way. And then, months or years later, we’re forced to remember it all over again—in the books we read, the shows we watch, the films Hollywood buttresses with million-dollar budgets. We ask for justice, so they broadcast the trial and make us relive that moment again. Image by image. Witness by witness.

bell hooks, another esteemed Black author, sees this cultural obsession with death as a form of necrophilia. “The more we watch spectacles of meaningless death or random violence and cruelty, the more afraid we become in our daily lives,” she wrote in All About Love. In the present we are living through, there's no room for moments of levity. Even writing an essay like this one—acknowledging the paralysis this trauma engenders—only adds weight to an already heavy conversation. 

Powerful literature by Black authors who know these feelings as well as we do can offer moments of respite and meaning-making—but even in the case of a book like The Man Who Lived Underground, the conclusion is the same: There is no counterprogramming for Black people. We are constantly reminded of the death that we, as a people, have endured—or the death that awaits us if we have a chance encounter with the wrong police officer. That’s pretty controversial. 

Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.