What roles do we play in the daily drama?
On November 22, 1968, which marked the five-year anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, in Dallas, and was seven months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis, a daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass appeared on the cover of Life magazine, for a special issue devoted to “The Search for a Black Past.” I don’t know how to explain why I thought of that photograph while watching Diamond Reynolds’s Facebook video of the police shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile. But I did. I’d been sitting at the breakfast table, crying, like so many people, while reading the news about the sniper in Dallas who shot twelve police officers, killing five of them, and had decided not to watch any of the footage of what happened that night for the same reason I’d decided not to watch any of the videos earlier in the week: watching had, oh, three or four murders ago, begun to feel like a kind of complicity, as if we’re all prisoners marched out of our cells and into the prison yard to serve as spectators for the next execution: the gun fires; we flinch; we return, helplessly, to our cells. So I’d skipped the footage of two policemen, in Baton Rouge, shooting Alton Sterling, and I’d swiped past Reynolds’s video, from Minnesota. But then, after reading about the sniper, I thought: maybe watching people shoot one another has become an obligation of American citizenship. So I forced myself to watch. And, as I did, the screen went black—the police had thrown down Reynolds’s phone, and put her in handcuffs—and you could only hear voices, the muted, distant sound of Reynolds crying and praying, and, closer, the urgent voice of her four-year-old daughter, and right then I remembered that photograph of Douglass.
Douglass believed photography would set his people free by telling the truth about their humanity. . .