Riding with Death: Defining Anti-Blackness

Riding with Death by Jean Michel Basquiat.

Riding with Death by Jean Michel Basquiat.

Black people only have one recognized right in this world — the right to death. This right is not the right to choose when or how we will die, it is not a coveted right. This right is also not the same guarantee of death that all living beings share. That everyone will eventually die is not to say everyone shares the same relationship with death. The anti-black world positions black people in close proximity to death so that the threat of gratuitous murder awaits us at every corner. This is the price of living Black in the Anti-Black world.

Anti-Blackness is not simply the racist actions of a white man with a grudge nor is it only a structure of racist discrimination — anti-blackness is the paradigm that binds blackness and death together so much so that one cannot think of one without the other.  When one thinks of dying, we think of “fading to black” — when we think of Death (Grim Reaper, Devil, Angel of Death), we think of a being cloaked in blackness. And in the popular imagination, when we think of black people (children, women, men), a dead body will come to mind. Everyday my newsfeed and certainly my television screens are filled with a new black person dead, so much so that the story is almost mundane. Our death is a commodity exchanged on screens and in songs, the strange fruit to whet the appetites of a nation of strangers.

Consider the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King jr as an example. First of all, it must be stressed that King was assassinated with the help of our government. But the story is always told that his death was a sacrifice for the greater good of the nation. In spite of his radicalization at the end of his life — including principled stances against capitalism, the American military, and even stating bluntly that he was afraid he had “integrated his people into a burning house” – King’s image is used to promote American hegemony. His memorial in Washington was funded by big oil companies like Shell and Exxon and the third-world labor abuser Wal-Mart. Anti-blackness is the paradigm that will not only kill a black person, but will then use their image and even their death as a hollow symbol to represent everything they stood against. Even in death there is neither peace nor rest for black people.

Anti-blackness is the living legacy of slavery. While slavery is classically thought of as a system of forced, unpaid labor, this view does not hold up to historical fact. In fact some slaves were paid, meagerly for sure, and also many slaves were not forced to labor. This is not to deny the brutality of slavery, it is instead to say we miss the violence of slavery when focusing on the labor aspect. The slave was a commodity. The slave was a living object that could be used for whatever purpose the master desired. The slave exists under the threat of death, so the slave must comply in order to stave off this imminent destiny. The slave’s only right then was a right to death – not to die an honorable death, but simply to be consigned to a death in the shadow of history.

This history continues after the abolition of plantation slavery, through jim crow segregation and systematic lynching into the contemporary period of the prison industrial complex, stand your ground laws that protect anti-black vigilantism, and the recent report that shows that a black person is shot by a cop every 28 hours. Anti-Blackness is the zombie of this history, the undead structure of slavery that still persists today and perils black lives. The fight against this violence is the fight of our day, a fight to avenge the unethical murders of folks like Rekia Boyd, Kenneth Chamberlin, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride and so many others. The black struggle of the twenty-first century is the global fight to create a new world where black lives matter – a fight for a black future.

by Nicholas Brady, PhD Candidate at the University of California, Irvine. 

Leave a comment


  1. Alexis P

     /  March 2, 2014

    “Black Lives Matter” shortly after the Zimmerman verdict I wrote this on a post-it and hung it above my bed as a reminder or I guess as a gesture of hope because it becomes more and more obvious these days that they don’t. The thought that no matter what we do, our black skin will always make us dangerous and up to no good in their eyes and our murders justified haunts me daily. I enjoyed and appreciated the honesty in this post and I wanted to say Thank you for mentioning Renisha McBride, I see myself every time I think of that young women. The lack of outrage and uproar surrounding her murder upsets me and makes it painfully obvious that the lives of Black Women matter even less..

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Truth Bringer

       /  June 14, 2015

      Fucking….really people? You’re going to play the race card? Spend just a few minutes looking up ACTUAL statistics on African American deaths in America and you’ll quickly see that it’s not “The Big Bad White Man” who’s killing black people, it’s OTHER BLACK PEOPLE! No wonder this country is turning to shit; some asshole gave YOU ignorant fucks the ability to spread your stupid to the rest of the world. Stop complaining, grow the fuck up, and for the love of God just STOP COMMITTING CRIMES!!!


  2. Oluwatoni A.

     /  April 6, 2014

    I think it’s worth noting that it’s not the idea of just black death but violent black deaths that seem to be fetishized in media. Whether in the news or fictional narratives where “the black guy always dies first,” our society is fixated on the violence that kills black people.

    We also need to look inward as a community as to how we promote or even encourage this view of violence in black death: the black actors that accept these roles or the violent lyrics in mainstream hip-hop.


  3. Reblogged this on .


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