Breathing Life into the Archive: A Review of Richardson’s Bearing Witness While Black
Elizabeth E. Sine
Seas of cellphones floating above the anchors of outstretched arms; the litany of hashtags bearing the names of the dead; livestream footage broadcasted by protestors with boots on the ground; the videos that capture for the world to see the life being taken from Black bodies by police—all of these have become recognizable features of the movement against police brutality and for Black lives, which has swept the nation and the world over the past decade. But they are more than mere characteristics. They are critical mechanisms by which the movement travels, transmits messages, grows, and pushes back against the daily horrors of structural racism and state violence within the United States. They are examples of a political practice that Allissa V. Richardson calls “Black witnessing,” which has played a constitutive role in what has arguably become the most powerful movement of our time. In her book, Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism, Richardson examines the forms of Black witnessing that animate the Black Lives Matter movement, while situating them within the much longer arc of witnessing practices that have helped shape historic struggles for Black liberation. In the process, her book brings into focus just how much efforts to combat the horrors of white supremacy and to sustain movements for racial justice have relied on often-overlooked acts of seeing and truth-telling that have been undertaken by Black witnesses past and present.
As she builds on a growing body of research that investigates African Americans’ use of cell phones and social media, Richardson bases her study especially on a pool of interviews she conducted with fifteen prominent Black witnesses, along with in-depth analyses of their Twitter timelines. Her interviewees are diverse in their gender identities, sexual orientations, and relationships to the Black Lives Matter movement, offering important insight into the patterns, interconnections, and differences that characterize their experiences and perspectives as Black witnesses. She organizes her analysis into three parts: Smartphones, Slogans, and Selfies. Across these three sections, the broad strokes of her work situate the smartphone era in a longer history of Black struggle, provide an archaeology of contemporary Black witnessing practices, and examine the visual iconography of Black protest journalism in the age of Black Lives Matter, along with its implications for Black witnesses and broader efforts for racial justice.
One of Richardson’s core contributions in Bearing Witness While Black is her centering of Blackness within her exploration of witnessing and its relationship to movement formation. In positing a distinctly Black witnessing as the focus of her study, she makes the case not only that Black people bear witness differently than others but, further, that witnessing has been a vital arena in which Black people have staked the evidentiary foundations of an oppositional narrative about race, power, and democracy within the United States. Black witnessing carries important legal weight for the pursuit of racial justice in courts. It also has a powerful capacity to mobilize public action, fueling pushback against racist policing patterns and the institutional racism that undergirds them. At least as significantly for Richardson is the role that it plays in linking Black people to one another. Particularly in the context of crisis, as Richardson puts it, Black witnessing functions as “a form of connective tissue among Black people that transcends place.” Rather than distancing or depersonalizing the connection between the victims of atrocity and the viewers, as the main currents of media witnessing scholarship suggest, she argues that cellphone footage of anti-Black violence, when seen by Black people, “blurs [the line] between viewer and victim.” For those who bear witness while Black (and some allied people of color, whom she includes in her analysis), Richardson’s work underscores that incidents of anti-Black violence are never isolated or episodic in nature. Rather, they grow out of, occur within, and are experienced through the context of systemic violence and generational trauma that history has wrought upon Black people for centuries.
As richly nuanced as it is in the ways it engages and builds upon media witnessing theory, Richardson’s work is also firmly anchored in and driven by the imperatives of praxis. Drawing on her experiences as a journalist, as a teacher of mobile journalism, and as an African-American woman who grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland in the age of the police assault on Rodney King and the L.A. Rebellion, she writes with an acute attentiveness to the stakes of the news-making practices she analyzes, including for witnesses themselves. Having worked with citizen journalists in a wide range of contexts, including in South Africa at the front lines of the country’s HIV/AIDS crisis and in Morocco in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, she also speaks to the comparative dimensions of witnessing practices across a variety of social movements. She highlights a certain degree of relatability that links the use of smartphones and social media by participants in the Black Lives Matter movement with that of people in the Occupy Wall Street protests and the Arab Spring.
Yet, in significant ways, she also emphasizes that the scope, scale, and systematic nature of racial violence to which African Americans bear witness make their witnessing even more akin to that of Holocaust survivors than to protestors in these other movements. As she explains, when Black people bear witness to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and far, far too many others, their actions simultaneously memorialize “the more than 10 million Africans who were sold into bondage across the Atlantic Ocean . . . the 5,000 African American men, women, and children who continued to be victims of lynching across the United States . . . [and] the more than 1 million African American and Latinx men and women who have fallen victim to mass incarceration since the late 1970s.” Black witnessing honors those subjected to suffering and premature death, all the while refusing to let the public forget the past, or, for that matter, look away from the horrors of the present. Therein lies its urgency.
It is not only the long history of anti-Black racism that weighs on the present. As Richardson demonstrates, contemporary Black witnessing practices also carry forth the legacies of Black survival, struggle, and resistance. As she situates the Black Lives Matter movement within a much longer genealogy of Black liberatory struggles, Richardson charts a history of Black witnessing that links the role of slave narratives, African American newspapers and magazines, television, early internet-based social networks, and Black Twitter along a historical continuum—forming “an unbroken chain of brave seers.” Earlier generations laid the groundwork for the modes of witnessing we have seen in the past decade, Richardson argues. The primary factor that distinguishes the witnessing practices of our contemporary moment is the accessibility of the technology involved. With the introduction of the smartphone, witnesses the world over acquired “a tool that would allow anyone to create and distribute media quickly, without the need for a privileged gatekeeper.” Combined with social media platforms and speedy internet connections, the smartphone has equipped today’s Black witnesses to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors, while at the same time enabling them to share, collectively grieve, strategize, and organize in response to news of police brutality at a more rapid pace and on a more thoroughly mass scale than ever before.
While Richardson makes clear her position on the side of viewing Black witnessing as a positive force for racial justice, her endorsement is not the kind that romanticizes. In fact, some of the richest parts of her analysis are those where she explores the tensions and contradictions inherent in the practice. Among the troubling aspects of Black witnessing she examines is the way that the smartphone technology on which today’s protest journalists rely—“the very tool that empowers the activists”—carries with it “the potential to extinguish them.” Highlighting the growing use of Stingray tracking technology by authorities and harking back to the role of COINTELPRO in the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Richardson complicates any inclination to celebrate the smartphone’s democratizing effects without reckoning with the ways it expands the terrain for surveillance and political repression.
Another set of challenges Richardson investigates is the potential harm that comes from seeing itself. On one level, bearing witness to atrocity can have serious emotional and psychological effects on the viewer, not to mention the threat of backlash from authorities to which they expose themselves. (Many will remember Ramsey Orta in this respect, the video witness who was the only one from the scene of Eric Garner’s death in 2014 who was arrested.) On another level, when footage of Black police victims’ last moments is shown repeatedly, often unedited and without freeze frame or face blurring techniques, the imagery may do more to normalize racist violence and uphold the terror of white supremacy than to challenge it. All this leads Richardson to the assertion that how such footage is shared is as significant as whether it is shared.
It is noteworthy that Bearing Witness While Black entered into print in June 2020, at the very same moment that the nation’s racial uprisings reached peak levels of intensity following the deaths of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among others. While Richardson could not have anticipated the exact synchronicity of events, it is a testament to just how “on time” her work truly is. Questions remain about how Black witnessing practices may vary across class lines, since Richardson’s interview sample overwhelmingly comprises graduates of prominent universities with advanced degrees, a factor that Richardson herself acknowledges. The relational dynamics that link the experiences and perspectives of Black-identified witnesses with those of non-Black witnesses of color is another topic that some readers may wish to see analyzed further, as her discussion on this front is relatively brief. Still, well researched and engagingly written, the book offers a fresh critical lens on the Black Lives Matter movement and on the possibilities and perils of efforts for social change more generally, adding significantly to both scholarly and broader public conversations. It will be of particular interest not only to media and journalism scholars, but also scholars of race/ethnicity, social movements, technology and history, as well as social activists and organizers for whom it bears lessons.
Elizabeth E. Sine is a historian of race, labor, and social movements in California and the broader United States (Ph.D., University of California San Diego) and Lecturer in History at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She is author of the recent book, Rebel Imaginaries: Labor, Culture, and Politics in Depression-Era California (Duke University Press, 2021) and co-editor of Another University Is Possible (University Readers, 2010). She is also on the steering committee of R.A.C.E. Matters in San Luis Obispo, California.
 Allissa V. Richardson, Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism (Oxford University Press, 2020), 12.
 Richardson, xii-xiii.
 Richardson, 44.
 Richardson, 39.
 Richardson, 114.
 The reference here to being “on time” comes from Ivory Perry, qtd. in George Lipsitz, A Life in the Struggle: Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), 269.