Trauma is Not Our Name: On the Epitaphs and Eulogies of Black Life
This is only slightly a review of Queen & Slim, and more-so a take on the politics of visibility and how many of us will die to be seen not knowing that being seen is, too, death.
Why don’t we ever know Queen and Slim’s names until they’re dead?
The filmmakers decided that this was imperative for the audience to envision themselves as Queen and Slim. In never referring to those titles or their given names (Angela Johnson and Ernest Hinds), this was an intentional way to allow for voyeurs to cosplay this fight for freedom. But why would we need to imagine ourselves within this particular Black experience more than the need to value that all of our experiences cannot be mimicked, puppeteered, or paralleled? Are Angela and Ernest’s experiences something that cannot be unique to them and only them? Is it possible to revere who they are as individuals before we decide to wear their skin and consume their flesh?
I keep coming back to how much this need to be seen — to be consumed, is a worldwide struggle amongst Black people and those who perpetuate it on behalf of Black people. The politics of visibility demand that Black people will be free if we get representation, get a seat at the table, get a mass following, and/or archive our survival before we live through it. The world tells us if we could just be seen, we would be free. But we will never be closer to freedom when the world sees our pain and thanks us for it. We are actually closer to death than freedom if pain is the language most spoken in place of our names.
The moment Queen and Slim are “seen,” they become the world’s performative desire and martyrdom for “Black Freedom.” Being on the run is so beautiful, yet no one along the way acknowledges how deadly their situation is. Mostly everyone thanks them, moves without urgency, or is apathetic to this very dangerous situation. Weirdly enough, the only Black person who disagrees with them still helps them on their journey to freedom by fixing their car and doesn’t turn them in. Never once does anyone ask if they’re okay, if they’re scared, if they knew they were already dead. This lack of concern for their wellness beyond the performative “freedom,” is because no one saw them as people. They became a symbol, a signifier for Black life while simultaneously fleeing Black death.
The reality of visibility is that being seen is only available if you kill all parts of yourself. Having a large following online means struggling with when to be yourself and when to continue to please your audience; when to sell yourself vs. when to be honest. Creating mainstream narratives to inspire and to be consumed means never having an identity but that of emptiness so that more people can find a home inside your flesh. Having a seat at the table means eating the flesh of others while you pretend you’re not on the menu as well. Being watched, hunted, followed, surveilled, supported with condition, and projected onto is not the foundation for freedom. It’s the foreground for fatality.
Throughout the film, we see that being seen demands that others are invisibilized, that representation is only evidenced by disappearance. Being seen means becoming an inspiration, a mammified corpse that only serves to give life to everyone else but yourself. A death that many would rather embody than that of invisibility, even when both realities overlap and are interchangeable.
The anchor scene to this invisibilization is the protest scene in support of Queen and Slim. Junior, a young Black boy that they just met earlier in the day, shoots a Black cop in the face. In so many ways, this scene represented far beyond what Lena Waithe could design or give meaning to. I did not witness a young Black child reclaiming power; I witnessed the trauma of wanting to be seen and how far some of us would go to be revered in life and death. I witnessed how life and death become the same thing in order to fulfill the emptiness of in-visibility.
Earlier that day, Junior explained to Angela and Ernest that he just wants to be valued, to be fought for, to be seen — like them. But never once does Junior name the context of what pushed Angela and Ernest to kill the cop. The video he watched over and over again showed the details of the provocation that led them there — yet, he only resonates with the impact of how the world shows up for them on the run.
Visibility requires voyeurism. Is our pain real if no one sees it? Is our pain real if no one can be inspired by it? I believe Junior imagined a life where the world fought on his behalf, and made him feel whole in a society that was designed to kill him. This wasn’t about revolution, this was about internalizing the fallacy that our pain is only real if someone else validates it. Our pain is only aesthetically pleasing if someone finds power in it. Junior just wanted to be powerful, and he saw that power became equivalent with trauma. But now, he’s just dead.
Junior wanted to be a representation and aesthetic that can be consumed and digested by the masses, and died to be the corpse the world will wear on their shirt. Like many of us, he fought to become the tropes of trauma so that he could prove his pain was beautiful and riveting. And we only know we’re valuable if an audience devours our flesh and seeks to wear our skin.
While our experiences are political, self-identification of those politics are just as valuable and affirm our agency in a world that strips us of it. We never hear Angela and Ernest discuss what they believe politically — we only assume meaning or do the labor of giving meaning. What’s in a name? Meaning. Intimacy. Life. We never know their names until we can profit from their flesh. We never know who they are because when we see them — we see a costume to wear, we see flesh to relate to, we see our own projections, we see their death wishing for our own.
Many of us fight to be seen because we are told the lie that if we have a legacy to out live us, we live forever. If we have people willing to die in our names, hide us in their safehouses, riot on our behalf, and write about our revolutionary suicide around the world — we are goals. We are the product most consumable, and we become the embodiment of trauma. Trauma becomes our name and our entirety of being. But who are we without trauma? Who are we after it?
The revolutions we revere are not always for freedom, but sometimes to perform the beauty of freedom. Some of us want to be apart of any fight because our scars become our personality. We become what we’ve survived, and we actively try to get closer to death because we chase it. Death becomes us. And in many ways, Black creatives struggle to differentiate how art imitates death when the story is designed to be one-size-fits-all-Blackness. This is evidenced in Queen and Slim as the creatives of the film invite the audience to become a caricature of nigga-nothingness only to become something in eulogy.
Our pain is not our name. We are not skin for audiences to wear. We are not flesh to be devoured and regurgitated. We are not trauma tropes to parade like costumes. We are not masturbation vessels to be projected onto, desired, and consumed. We become fractions when our bodies are only weapons for revolution. Our names, our stories, and our intimacies makes us whole. There is no future if our flesh never unites with our being, and if our work never intimates with our bodies. We are rhymeless, grammatically incorrect, and so deeply complicated before we are ever poetic lullabies to feed those starving for purpose.