With the rest of the country, I find myself today inundated with a conveyor belt of images streaming from Baltimore, Maryland, the latest of which—a black mother, since identified as Toya Graham, seeming to attack, to literally tear her son away from the “riotous” front-lines—has recently gone viral. “Viral” may in fact be an apt term here, because it makes me so literally sick, and not just because this scene of a black mother and son in a tug-of-war can’t help but recall the mothers of so many other young black men. Sabrina Fulton, Lesley McFadden and the many, many others who had their mother-son bond disrupted by a bullet.
The virality of this image sickens me because it seems predicated on a problematic rhetoric: the notion that the black man and the black woman are always vehemently opposed. Worse, it perpetuates the profoundly anti-feminist suggestion that the black woman may, in fact, be in collusion with something we could call systemic racism, to the further injury of the black man.
This is all sickening. But we already know this story: it’s Ferguson, it’s Staten Island, it’s Fruitvale Station. And we also know that behind every image is another image, and another, all suppressed, censored or ignored, yet bearing as much information as the one actually shown.
I want to believe this mother was responding to a valid, immediate panic: fear of injury or the possible murder of her child. When overwhelming feeling mounts and language seems unavailable, two options often present themselves: tears, or violence.
Hence, this image:
I need to believe this, just as I need to believe the son was out there in the streets of West Baltimore in response to an equal panic: fear of his own possible death, or his peers, and the threat of erasure that forever shadows them. And, again, when urgent feeling overrides language, it’s the body that responds: tears, or violence or what is called rioting—from my mouth revolting—in this case manifesting as some rocks thrown at police officers, car windows smashed, a drug store looted.
It is easy for people—especially non-black people—to look at this image and construct a narrative of opposition, rather than unity. Too often, viral media distills these moments into keywords: senselessness, respectability, “hoodlumness.” But I want to read something different in this image, a deep commitment to the matter and value of black lives, whether a mother for her child or a child for himself. Let’s see that go viral.