Michael Brown was killed on 9 August 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. He was eighteen. He had just graduated high school. He was black. He was shot at least six times by a white police officer.
On Friday 13 March 2015, conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith gave a reading at Brown University. He paced and read for thirty-minutes, a photograph of Michael in his high-school graduation gown projected above the stage. The reading was called ‘The Body of Michael Brown’. It was a ‘remixed’ version of Michael’s autopsy. Not much had been changed: the medical jargon was translated, the order of certain words rearranged, and the ending rewritten. Now the ‘climax’ of the piece, as it were, was an observation of Michael’s ‘unremarkable genitalia’.
White America’s fascination with African-American men’s genitalia has a long, and troubled history. It unfolds within the history of white ownership of black bodies. We all remember slavery: a time when blacks were bought and bartered, and understood literally as objects for consumption by white America. Men, women and children were branded with the names of their masters, and assigned value based on their physicality and capacity for work. We all vaguely remember the violence that followed the abolition of slavery: the lynchings and race riots and the night-time raids of the Ku Klux Klan. African-Americans were hung, beaten and burnt alive as punishment and as performance. Their deaths were transformed into spectacles that attracted hundreds, even thousands, of whites. Their bodies became souvenirs. Bones, teeth, and scraps of clothing became keepsakes. Following the horrific murder of Sam Hose in 1899, a local shopkeeper collected and displayed Hose’s knuckles in his front window.
When Kenneth Goldsmith read ‘The Body of Michael Brown,’ he was perpetuating the objectification of black bodies for white consumption. He read the autopsy of a black man who was murdered by a white man. He read it as a white man, in a country where white men have historically oppressed and exerted ownership over black bodies. As Jacquelyn Valencia, a black poet and fan of Goldsmith’s work, observed, Goldsmith ‘is not black. He is not from Ferguson. He is not related to Michael Brown.’ Despite the long proclaimed ‘death of the author,’ work is not created in a vacuum. These things matter. In this case, the race of the ‘author’ matters. Yes, the work would have been received differently if it had been read by a black man.
In essence, Goldsmith’s reading was recreating the power structures that resulted in Michael’s death. He rhetorically dissected Michael’s body for an audience that was overwhelmingly white and male. The audience then repeatedly referred to Michael as ‘a body, the body, it’ during the Q&A following the reading. Rin Johnson, a black woman in the audience, later wrote ‘the whole description feels sexual’. Michael’s humanity was stripped away, again. Goldsmith had the audacity to label it art, as though creating ‘art’ means he gets a free pass on human decency and perpetuating white supremacy.
Let’s consider authorial intent for a moment, even though Goldsmith’s intent is murky at best. His work has traditionally focused on remixing existing sources rather than creating new ones, on examining the nature of creativity and originality in a world overflowing with data. His work Printing Out the Internet, for example, was aimed at literally reprinting the internet. His general philosophy seems to have been outlined in ‘Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now?’, when he wrote ‘[t] o be the originator of something that becomes a broader meme trumps being the originator of the actual trigger even that is being reproduced’.
In reading the autopsy of Michael Brown, was Goldsmith hoping to ‘trump’ Michael’s life and death? Or ‘trump’ the #blacklivesmatter movement and their representation of Michael?
Goldsmith attempted to clarify his motivations in a Facebook post, comparing the reading to his work Seven American Deaths and Disasters, in which he transcribed radio broadcasts and television reports of national tragedies like September 11.
I took a publicly available document from an American tragedy that was witnessed first-hand … and simply read it … for me, this is the writing that is able to tell the truth in the strongest and clearest way possible.
Even with this explanation, his intent is unclear. What ‘truth’ was he hoping to reveal? Michael Brown’s death is already a cultural touchstone. Reading his autopsy is not art, because it is not making us question or reimagine anything. In reality, Goldsmith was simply exploiting the power of Michael’s autopsy – which has already been well-established – for his own gain.
Goldsmith determinedly ignored the clarion call of #blacklivesmatter, a shorthand for the campaign that swelled in America and around the world following the murder of Michael. He ignored the work of African-Americans staunchly taking a stand against police brutality and the continued racial inequality that plagues America today. This wasn’t a failed attempt at solidarity, but rather a calculated move to capitalise on the momentum of #blacklivesmatter. At the very least, Goldsmith has fundamentally misunderstood the aims of the movement and the source of the tragedy.
In the words of Mongrel Coalition, a radical group aimed at countering the inherently white, colonial nature of colonial poetry, ‘The Murdered Body of Michael Brown’s medical report is not our poetry, it’s the building blocks of white supremacy.’
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