The Crass Commodification of Black Pain
I was having an ordinary pandemic Monday.
Alexander sent me a snippet of a student paper that he had to grade before enjoying whatever Spring Break will be this year. What Alexander sent managed to do something surprising. It surprised me, informing me of some stranger-than-fiction stale news that had been buried beneath our regularly-scheduled cacophony of absurd headlines.In reaction to the protests surrounding the death of George Floyd last June, California vegan restaurant chain Cafe Gratitude displayed their marketing “genius,” introducing a #BlackLivesMatter Bowl. For a mere $13, any vegan or vegan friendly person could “nourish” their anti-racist soul with the feel-good crunch of kale, black beans, and garlic tahini served atop a bed of brown rice, quinoa, or a blend of both. $8 of the purchase goes to such organizations such as Black Lives Matters Los Angeles, the NAACP and others. Good fiber for a good cause? No animals were harmed in the production of this virtue signalling. (Maybe). When I mocked the bowl on social media, Bay Area residents chorused, “I thought they were closed?!”
The nearest location still open is in hippie drop-out utopia, Santa Cruz. Most Bay Area residents don’t consider the beachside hamlet a part of the Bay Area. The locations beyond our nine-county federation survived a decade-old kerfuffle surrounding wage theft and improper tip pooling. For those remaining locations, aligning their branding with what is now considered a time-weathered “good” stance long after it seems crass makes good business sense. It’s worked for Ben & Jerry’s time and time again. This good publicity will finally redeem the wrongs the firm committed against employees in the name of “sacred commerce.”
Eat your quinoa, Kayleigh!
Each bite prevents the death of a Black person in Watts!
I’m surprised they haven’t enlisted Sarah McLachlan to record a commercial yet. When Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi formed Black Lives Matter in July of 2013, I imagine they weren’t thinking about their hashtag becoming a marketing ploy, Unfortunately, in the intervening eight years, the hashtag has become synonymous with feel-good #woke consumerism and brand building on the backs of public lynchings of Black people by our police state. It has launched the sales of enamel pins, baseball hats, (unironically) hoodies, and now, food. It becomes one with you: the hashtag will nourish you, prevent you from experiencing hunger. I’m surprised there isn’t a Black Lives Matter waffle iron at this point. I sighed a relief to see the ingredients of Cafe Gratitude’s bowl didn’t include Seitan Fried Chicken.
It escalated to an absurd degree during the racial unrest and protests last summer. Corporations that had openly penalized Black consumers and employees trotted out the hashtag to prevent being the target of ire. Black Lives Matter as a visual is a protection against being labeled a racist, even when you benefit from racist policies. Corporations, politicians, and gentrifying white homeowners in bungalows in formerly redlined neighbors use it as a defense shield against actual change.
The same day I got the news of the #BlackLivesMatter Bowl, Patrisse Cullors took to her Facebook page. She posted an Oprah Winfrey style My Favorite Things video. For those hooked on consuming their way to happiness, it must’ve seemed like a throwback to a gentler time. Those of us that had the (dis)pleasure of watching Oprah during her heyday knew that once a year, Oprah would deign to lavish certain consumer goods with her praise, passing them out to her audience as freebies.
You were blessed if you got tickets to that particular taping of Oprah. You’d have the latest and greatest of product placement marketing. You’d have a jump on what the plebs would have to pay for at Target, Walmart or Kohls, enabling you to keep miles ahead of “The Joneses.” The pinnacle of these giveaways was the year Oprah gave away 276 examples of pre-GM bailout Pontiac G6’s of dubious quality. “And you get a car! And YOU get a car!” has become one of the top 10 memes of all time.Black Lives Matter is re-inventing the traditions of big-box consumerism, now with an activist twist. Part of the proceeds are supposed to trickle down (Hello, Reagonomics!) and soften the blow of centuries-old inequities. Cullors extolled the virtues of various goods in an exuberant tone of grace not unlike Martha Stewart. Invoking the guise of Black Women Owned Businesses, she walks us through the products — Tracee Ellis Ross’ Pattern Beauty, Beyoncé’s latest Ivy Park collection and Issa Rae’s “I’m Rooting For Everybody Black” apparel among the most prominent. The timing implies you should definitely spend a little bit of your stimmy on all these Black-owned businesses.“Thank you, Issa Rae for letting Black Lives Matter be in collaboration with you on this T-shirt” Cullors warbles before squealing about the Beyoncé products. I guess we can celebrate how far we’ve come since the days that Diana Ross praised Arrid deodorant as a Supreme. We can champion that her daughter sells a line of haircare products for Black people, by Black people. We can ignore the lack of obstacles faced by Ellis Ross, a woman who belongs to an entertainment dynasty, a performer whose decades of visibility as a sitcom star supports this venture. We have one of our own in control of our own consumable beauty. If Sandra Bland were with us today, she’d buy these products too.The reality that we must face is that neither Ellis Ross nor Mrs. Knowles-Carter nor Rae need help selling their products. They have huge platforms. Rae, the youngest amongst them, comes from a privileged middle class background that allowed her access to Stanford University. Most recently, she signed a contract with WarnerMedia for $40 million. These women are award winners in our most prestigious pop culture arenas.
Beyoncé has the gravitas to have a whole film streaming on Disney Plus. Yet this elbow-rubbing with the famous, this proximity to bright lights is more important than the original cause at hand to those that re-kindled a social movement that never died despite all the death. We can’t ignore the fact that solidarity-as-capitalism silences the Black voices most oppressed. We can’t ignore the voices of those who directly suffered the injustices of state-sanctioned violence. We should listen to them when they speak. They’re tirelessly working and informing us time and again that these activists make themselves wealthy by exploiting Black death. In the last week, we’ve seen those people that monetize murder tell the survivors of violence, more or less, to shut the fuck up. These activists are shouting over them louder than ever.
“Look at this clout chaser, Did she lose something in this fight? I don’t think so. That’s the problem. They take us for a joke. That’s why we never have justice ‘cause of shit like this.” – Samaria Rice
Samaria Rice‘s son Tamir was killed by white Cleveland cop Timothy Loehmann in 2014 at the age of 12. Samaria brought the latest consumerist hedonism to light after Tamika Mallory appeared on the Grammys during Lil Baby’s performance of “The Bigger Picture.” Her appearance reverberates in multiple directions. There’s the long standing accusations that Shaun King has been pretending to be Black while callously showing vicious imagery of Black death for donations. The money trail never passes the muster of any accountant.
There are the stories of how Mallory and her organization, Until Freedom, made sure to bail out celebrity protestors protesting against the murder of Breonna Taylor. She left poor, unemployed, and vulnerable protestors from Louisville in jail without legal or financial support to navigate the grim consequences of participating in the fight of their lives. Alicia Garza is recognized by Glamour Magazine in advance of the release of her book The Purpose of Power, long having left on-the-ground-organizing for podcasting.
Meanwhile, the body count doesn’t change.
Perhaps because there’s more media attention, it seems to grow.
Oddly, the focus is still primarily on Black cis-gendered men. The revived civil rights movement hasn’t stopped the spilling of Black blood in the streets. The proponents of the mainstream-media-centric strategy have claimed their contracts and deals that have afforded them middle-class comfort. They have secured their seats at the table. There are no more place-settings for those that need to fend for food and housing, for those who need to fend off anxiety with every interaction with the police.
Samaria Rice only asked for accountability.
Where is the money going? She only asked for these individuals to stop claiming an identity that isn’t theirs. They aren’t the survivors of loss. They’re more or less talking heads no better or worse than Meghan McCain on The View. The amount of space they take up relative to their lack of direct experience is woefully out of balance. Rice asked these activists to be honest about selling the public a consumer good, a good feeling that people of means can click on and eat up, allowing them to forget the hell so many live with day in and day out.
In response, Rice has been smeared as an agent of the state.
She’s been called a liar. She’s been accused of trying to fracture a movement that has produced nothing but celebrities in the near decade that it has been active. Shamefully, Black Lives Matter national has amassed a luxurious $90 million while Black people have died at disproportionately high rates alongside fellow ethnically and racially minoritized groups during this pandemic. Nevermind the skyrocketing evictions and lack of food and healthcare a year into this pandemic which have also been placed on Black people.
They are no longer fighting to change the system from within.
They have embraced the false sentiment that the system makes minor adjustments to placate those that have grievances. They have become among the few it prioritizes. Closed mouths don’t get fed. Their volume has been the loudest and most consistent. They are now loud and proud enough to tell the rest of us to shut up. They have said that we’re jealous of their destiny. Their tenacious appeal to celebrity-driven U.S. capitalism is truly impressive. As long as our grief is a product to sell to the bourgeois, who are we to disagree?
Time Capsule or actual human being, who knows. Laurence Jones has been sifting through ephemera of the past seemingly forever, spinning vinyl for you, taking film photography and entertaining you with instagram posts of the decrepit old cars they own. You can find previous writing by them at djlarsupreme.com and medium.com