I woke up on Tuesday feeling bitter about the black squares dominating social media. Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, two Black women music executives, originally began the campaign #TheShowMustBePaused to draw attention to the ways the music industry profits off of Black talent. Though meant to be a show of solidarity against the various brutalizations of Black people, there is something inherently violent about the squares’ cumulative effect.
The internet is an archive. In a world where the historical materiality related to Black Americans is largely composed of property records, mugshots, and the relics of lynchings, we need to ask ourselves what the black square replaces and how it functions as an image.
Let’s begin by considering the black square in relation to what scholar Tina Campt describes as the “Black feminist praxis of futurity.” This means that part of the critical work of this moment, particularly for Black people, is imagining a liberated future and talking about said future as if that which is required to secure it has already happened. As I consider this future, I imagine historians will look back on our self-documentation for meaning-making. In her book, Listening to Images, Campt asks that rather than solely processing them visually, we evaluate images based on their haptic registers — that which is felt. To listen to an image, then, means being attuned to what we feel when we look at it.
In the US, black is the color of mourning. I believe part of what makes the black square powerful is that it communicates collective grief. Still, the flat, black square is an erasure. Where policing in the United States is rooted in hunting down runaway enslaved peoples and protecting the interests of white property owners, the black square gesture draws no connections between capitalism and the police force as protectors of white material wealth. I suspect that was part of the black square’s allure: it didn’t ask users to confront legacies of anti-Black violence and exploitation, and it fell short of a call to action — you can be anti-abolition or pro-capitalist and still post a black square without betraying your values. Hence why businesses with long, anti-Black histories had no qualms about re-sharing the black square on their platforms.
The flat, black square is lifeless. When I imagine future historians confronting the black square, I think of the faces of those slain by police, swallowed up by such voids. Though certainly better than the circulation of videos that document their violent murders, these images are similarly imposed over the lives, joys, and families of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and the many who have since been injured or murdered while participating in the global rebellions honoring them. Though meant to memorialize the countless victims of the global anti-Black machine and indicate the non-singularity of their deaths, the black square bulldozes over Black lives, leaving behind only a generalized ink-blot.
The flat, black square also acts as a void, devouring the valuable information protestors and organizers are trying to amplify. It drowns out the concrete, material steps we should take in this urgent moment. In fact, hours after users began posting the black square, activists began decrying the use of the square in conjunction with the Black Lives Matter hashtag, which people on the ground were using to distribute information about protests, protective coverings, and bail funds. Rather than seeing the vital information, those who ran a search for #Blacklivesmatter encountered pages and pages of black squares.
In the present, the black square says nothing about what is still needed to push things forward, and in the future, the black square will tell historians nothing about what we did.
As a gesture, the black square asks nothing of its viewers or distributors except to re-share and perform alliance with Black people. It prompts no learning, no engagement with any critical thoughts, and no material action. When we try to listen to the haptic registers of the flat, black squares, they exude nothing but deafening silence.
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