As the footage continues, now intercut with video of a group of black people beating their hearts in unison, one of the performers asked: “In this mystery of all mysteries, measure for measure, how do you measure a life?” The calm, distinct delivery of the performers disintegrates; they begin talking over and under each other:
“She was 25. He was 22. He was a father. She was 31. A man. He was 36. A brother. She was a mother. A boy. She was 28,” they said. “He was 25. A cousin. She was 34. A child. He was 43. A friend. She was 37. A girl. He was 27. A father. She was 35. A child.”
The words don’t so much crescendo as get sewn together, a quilt that keeps growing and growing and growing.
The screens show Philando Castile’s partner, Diamond Reynolds, in the moments after the shooting. “Please don’t tell me my boyfriend just went like that,” she says, and then, “Yes, I will sir, I’ll keep my hands where they are.”
And then, from this most specific, painful, awful experience, Weems zooms out, back into the universal fact of mortality. She links these deaths to your death, whoever you are, and the one thing that will unite us all in the end. And she asserts, too, that despite all this specific racial violence, she is free to consider the totality of life and death, all its many measures, not circumscribed by the one demographic attribute that was assigned to her at birth. “How do you measure a life?” she asked.
“By the way you confront life or by the way you confront death? By the number of friends you’ve gathered during a lifetime or by the remaining few who stand with you at the bitter end shedding copious tears when they lay your body down?” she asked, choking up. “By the road traveled or by the effort, the drive, the sheer determination to endure all of the impossible? Or by the kindness and the grace displayed in the process of living your life to the bitter end? How do you measure a life?”
It is significant that Weems calls her obsession “the history of violence,” and not just violence. Each episode of police brutality cannot be seen on its own, outside the history of slavery, of lynchings, of northern mobs burning the homes of their new black neighbors, of stop and frisk, of the near impossibility of convicting any police officer for doing anything to a black person.
And yet, she calls on her audiences not just to see the ends of these black lives in a sealed chamber, somewhere far away from from life in America, but to consider how their deaths measure this country. Time and again, when some new American bad deed is reported, powerful people cry out, This is not who we are! or This is un-American!
But what if it’s not? What if this is an America that coexists easily with the one some people prefer to imagine? Then, how grotesque it becomes to claim the good, just version of America as truth rather than aspiration.