The Commodification of Black Death


Photo/Shan Shui Studio

Pieces from Shan Shui Studio’s “Wear Their Names” collection. Pieces were named after victims of police brutality–those in the image are named after Gabriella Nevarez, Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, and Trayvon Martin. The studio faced backlash soon after the launch of their collection.

Adrita Talukder, Newspaper Editor in Chief

To turn a human life into something that is marketable, something consumable by mass audiences, is a seemingly inconceivable idea. Yet for Black Americans, this is their reality. 

In recent months, the nation’s focus has been shifted to the Black Lives Matter(BLM) movement, but what accompanied this awareness was a sharp increase in the commodification of Black death. Stores were popping up right and left with the faces of victims of police brutality plastered on merchandise, and social media was flooded with posts and images making use of Black trauma. Such a pervasive usage of Black death brings up a number of questions–what dangers does commodification pose, what beliefs does commodification stem from, and what does the commodification of Black death reveal about how this country views Black Americans? 

These questions were brought to the forefront when nonprofit jewelry line Shan Shui released a jewelry line titled “Wear Their Names” during summer 2020. Shan Shui’s collaborators–couple Paul Chelmis and Jing Wen, who are white and Asian–aimed to “create something beautiful out of the rubble.” In their attempt to do so, they created the “Wear Their Names” line. The eight pieces featured in the collection were created from shattered glass from the Charleston George Floyd protests on May 30, and were each named after a different victim of police brutality: Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Gabriella Nevarez, and Tanisha Anderson. Each piece was marked at a different price, and some were marked down, presumably if they weren’t “selling well.” 

Unsurprisingly, the couple faced backlash. 

“This is making a mockery of people who died and have yet to receive their justice. Capitalizing off something like this disrespectful as hell,” Twitter user @teeberculosis said. 

“It is exploitive. Unless the family members totally consent, which I am sure they do not. The people brutally murdered are not fashion accessories,” Twitter user @AliceGlencross said. 

Numerous others on social media shared the same sentiment. However, some questioned the criticisms of the jewelry line.

“If they[’re] donating all the money to BLM or NAACP I don’t see what’s wrong,” Twitter user @jxylxh1 said.

The thing is, it doesn’t matter whether or not Shan Shui was donating their profits. The central issue still stands: this jewelry line was actively participating in the commodification of Black death. In the case of Shan Shui, you have non-Black individuals exploiting the deaths of Black Americans, capitalizing on Black trauma to draw attention to their own ventures. We see, quite literally, that the deaths of Black Americans are being turned into means of economic profit. It is commodification in its purest form. 

These actions made clear the extent to which Black lives mattered to this couple. Their first instinct was to turn the harsh reality of Black Americans being murdered every day into nothing more than “pretty” jewelry. As shocking as this couple’s actions might seem, they are but a reflection of the commodification of Black death which occurs on a larger scale. 

The case of Shan Shui is but one of many instances of Black death being commodified. It is, unfortunately, commonplace to see the deaths of Black people circulate across social media. The circulation of such images carry deeply damaging effects, normalizing the image of brutalized Black bodies while desensitizing society to something that shouldn’t be acceptable. 

“The commodification of violent Black death, and the circulation of scenes of violent Black death on social media, on the news, etc. perpetuates the idea that violent Black death is common, unavoidable, and simply a part of our daily media landscape. It also devalues Black humanity, while commodifying the images and sounds of violent Black death for public consumption. It also perpetuates the idea that Black people’s natural environment is inherently violent and dangerous, which often, in a segregated society, leads to thinking that there is something inherent in Blackness that attracts violence,” said Dr. Cynthia Young, Department Head of African American Studies at Penn State University. 

Reposts of violent murders on social media don’t help anyone. As Young said, they instead often help people “reinforce what they think they already know about Black people.” They play into dangerous and false stereotypes and are only successful in the additional dehumanization of Black individuals. 

“Stereotypes exist for a reason. They serve a social purpose. In a racially segregated context where few white people have deep or long-lasting relationships with people of other races, particularly Black people, it can be exciting or appealing to watch people whose lives are different from your own … As a person who is not Black, you can enjoy the fact that your life isn’t violent or dangerous or [fill in the blank]. It can give someone not in that circumstance a sense of superiority. It can also serve to justify inequality. You see repetitive images of Black men being shot and you think ‘well, there must be something inherently violent about that group if they keep getting shot.’ Or someone who isn’t Black might think, ‘if Black people are stopped by police, it must be because they were doing something wrong.’ So the commodification of violent, Black death reinforces a sense that, if you are not Black, you are better off or superior, and also that violent, Black death must somehow be inherent to Black people,” Young said. 

We’ve also seen the death of Breonna Taylor commodified. Taylor was fatally shot by police officers in Louisville, Kentucky, on Mar. 13, 2020. Following her death, activists called for justice for Taylor and other Black women who were killed by police. The rise in awareness of Taylor’s death was accompanied with a series of slogans, posts, and memes. A quick search of her name on Etsy brings up dozens of pages of t-shirts, face-masks, baseball caps, and more, all with her name printed on them. The nonchalance that Taylor’s death was met with is telling of the disregard that this country still has for Black Americans, Black women especially. Taylor’s name was monetized, her memory trademarked. 

“Her [Taylor’s] death hit a societal nerve, meaning that it deeply unsettled people, even those used to seeing violent, Black death circulated in the media,” Young said. “White and other non-Black people have an easier time feeling empathy for victims of police murder if the victim is perceived to be not only innocent, but also ‘good.’ So after her death, there were stories about Ms. Taylor’s ambitions, how she was a good citizen and person, as if that somehow means her violent death was less justified than Philando Castile’s or George Floyd’s. In reality, we, as a society, should think all life matters, that all people suspected of a crime have the right to a vigorous defense, rather than a quick execution.”

The dissemination of Taylor’s ambitions and her history were crucial in her story being heard and people taking action. The outrage over her death was largely fueled by the empathy that many had only after hearing about her dreams. This demonstrates one truth: Taylor’s death was palatable. It was easy for people to be outraged, it was easy to demand justice for her. Why did her dreams need to be revealed in order for society to view her violent death as less justified? In a similar sense, why was a video of George Floyd’s death necessary for people to wake up to reality? Why does Black death have to be made consumable in order for people to care?

The commodification of Black death is nothing more than a throwaway attempt at performative “justice.” The participation in commodification is self-indulgent, feeding into a false sense of allyship when in reality, all it is doing is harm. Good intentions are often lost when the only effect of their actions are harmful. Commodification is telling of not only how much of society views Black lives as trivial, but also of how Black trauma has to cater to white preferences in order to receive justice. 

For further reading, see On Breonna, Oluwatoyin, & Posthumous Iconography Of Murdered Black People, From Lynching Photos to Michael Brown’s Body: Commodifying Black Death, and The Commodification of Black Death.