8 Ways a Modern Civil Rights Movement Moved the Culture

From music to movies, canceled podcasts to toppled monuments, our writers take stock of the culture we shared in the year after George Floyd’s murder.

Black Squares, Mass-Produced
by Amanda Hess
The ‘Reply All’ Meltdown
by Reggie Ugwu
Racism Became the Genre
by Wesley Morris
Songs of Pain and Defiance
by Joe Coscarelli
The Many Faces of George Floyd
by Maya Phillips
Revisiting Monuments, Revisiting History
by Jason Farago
Our Bookshelves, Ourselves?
by Lauren Christensen
Making Museums Move Faster
by Holland Cotter

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered under the knee of a white police officer, who is now in prison. Even so, a year later — after Americans protested and posted black squares on social media; after calls for the convictions of the officers who killed Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans went unanswered — the question remains: After the most significant civil rights movement in the lifetime of many of us, how much has changed? When the dust settles, what of the uprising persists?

One answer just might lie in the art. From “Judas and the Black Messiah” to H.E.R.’s “I Can’t Breathe,” from the canceling of podcasts to the toppling of monuments to oppression, from “White Fragility” to Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist”: Thanks to the culture we shared in a year unlike any other, the world looks, for better or worse, at least a little different.


Black Squares, Mass-Produced

One day last June, black squares fell across Instagram at a terrific speed. Instagram is a visual medium, and when tens of millions of users uploaded a blank image to their grids, it said something. But what? Did the black square announce allegiance to a protest movement against the police? Was it a simple nod of respect toward George Floyd, a kind of funeral veil thrown over the digital home of the selfie? Was it a circus of white discomfort, a mass announcement that white people felt like they ought to say something about racism, but they definitely didn’t know what? Or was it more calculated than that — a reputational strategy to shield the posters from their own reckoning?

The black squares grew out of a provocation from a pair of young Black music executives. Under the name #TheShowMustBePaused, Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas called out the hypocrisy endemic to the American culture industry: “I don’t want to sit on your Zoom calls talking about the black artists who are making you so much money, if you fail to address what’s happening to black people right now,” they wrote in a series of statements. “The show can’t just go on, as our people are being hunted and killed.” In its demand to improve the working conditions of Black creatives, the pause recalled the radical tradition of the labor strike.

But as the idea washed across social media, its pointed message eroded. In the days leading up to the pause, brands translated its ideas into palatable corporate innuendos about “solidarity,” “diversity” and “inclusion.” The statements all seemed to be rendered in white text on black backgrounds, as if they had been mass produced in the same crisis conference room. Soon the day of action came to be known as Blackout Tuesday, with its central iconography of the black square, named after the default shape of an Instagram post.

There was something suspicious about the eagerness with which the symbol of protest was taken up by entities, like N.F.L. teams, that had previously squashed Black Lives Matter activism in their ranks. #TheShowMustBePaused had been animated by its specificity: two Black women risking their careers by speaking out against racism in their industry. When millions of people joined in, the context was diluted to the point of inscrutability; the act was so popular that it came to feel perfunctory, as if everyone with a social media account was now engaging in a bit of crisis control for their personal brands. By the time the trend reached a Canadian Garfield-themed restaurant — which posted a baffling image of the cartoon cat’s eyes squinting languidly atop a black square — the movement had been recast as a farce. The campaign had come full circle: What began as a protest of corporate appropriation of Black culture became another Black cultural artifact for brands to exploit for their own ends.


The ‘Reply All’ Meltdown

Podcasts are good for going deep. They unfold unhurriedly, at the speed of a cocktail conversation, or a bedtime story. Most, to some degree, are serialized, leaving a trail of bread crumbs to draw in the listener. Over the last year, as media institutions around the country were attempting to take a deeper look at themselves, re-examining their roles in perpetuating racist narratives, few were under more scrutiny than the food magazine Bon Appetít, the subject of a multipart series that premiered in February from the celebrated internet and culture podcast “Reply All.” The series, “The Test Kitchen,” was a kind of post-mortem, investigating why the magazine had seemed to self-destruct in the wake of the protests in June, when photos resurfaced of its editor in a racially stereotyped costume. But “Reply All” hadn’t looked deep enough. After the second of four planned episodes aired, several Black former employees of the company that produces the show, Gimlet Media, cried hypocrisy. They accused Gimlet, and senior staffers of “Reply All” specifically, of the same kinds of transgressions that had plagued Bon Appetít. Within days, the series was canceled and the staffers had stepped down. It was a cautionary tale that reverberated across the industry: Reporting on racial equity is one thing, practicing it is another.


Racism Became the Genre

For more than 30 years, when a slain Black American ushers in national tragedy, anyone looking for explanatory art could always find clarity in “Do the Right Thing.” Spike Lee released his first masterpiece in 1989, in the wake of killings in New York City. The film’s depiction of one block in a Brooklyn neighborhood and its climactic implosion pivots on gentrification, police brutality and systemic injustice that Lee refuses to name. Therein resides its power. Invisible strings pull at its characters. They’re helpless against the inferno that engulfs their home — fate, in the classical sense.

The murder of George Floyd last Memorial Day left a considerably vaster wake; tragedy didn’t simply grip the nation, it shook the country, hard. This time, anyone looking for explanatory art received almost satirical algorithmic advice. Here, for instance, is “The Help.” Once again, Lee’s film felt most apt. But other television shows and movies have flooded the breach of what seems right to call the Floyd era, a period in which the status has been vigorously de-quo’ed with respect to a centuries-old racism that white Americans, suddenly, realized was as elemental for this country as fire. It’s mostly work that was made before last May but seemed to anticipate the mood since Floyd’s death crystallized ancient dismay.

On HBO, there was “Lovecraft Country,” a fantasy series that premiered in August and roves the 1950s-era United States along with the Korean War, outer space and an assortment of moments in the distant past. Recently, “Them” arrived on Amazon and gleefully turns ’50s racial integration into a horror series set in a white suburb. At least two movies were made about government agencies harassing — and, in Fred Hampton’s case, shooting to death as he slept — prominent Black Americans. Before these were movies like “The Hate U Give,” about a teenager drawn to protest after the police gun down her friend; and “Queen & Slim,” in which two cop-killers go on the lam and somehow fall in love. That’s for starters.

Some of this work can be as lyrical as Lee’s. Yet despite its reliance upon metaphor and genre, it feels predicated upon a kind of moral literalism — or perhaps simply obviousness. The pervasion of racism oppresses the characters, the plots and maybe even us. That, of course, is how racism operates. But here it leaves no room for ideas or personalities to declare themselves. The sense of doom is totalizing and deadening. Characters can’t meaningfully connect or think without the intrusion of ghosts, monsters or the F.B.I.

This isn’t to say that there’s no way to imagine wedding American crisis and magic realism. A couple of years ago, “Watchmen” fused the fight against white supremacy with superhero myths. The conflation never felt gratuitous because its makers seemed to deeply understand what they were up to and took their time fully revealing that to us. Too often, the crisis invites opportunism.

In the 1970s, as Black nationalism became the dominant Black political mode, something amazing happened to American movies. They got Blacker. Before 1968, there had basically been Sidney Poitier changing the country on his own; then a galaxy of other faces materialized alongside his. But pretty swiftly, it became clear — courtesy of both gems and dross — that criminality, heroic and otherwise, would preoccupy most of these movies, many of them made by Black men. “Blaxploitation” they called it, in part for its nearsightedness.

A similar monomania is back for this latest boom in Black screen expression. The crime now is discrimination deployed in order to make the past at home in the present and the present indistinguishable from the past. Continuums bend into loops. The characters feel largely like victims. And the work can feel as exploitative of an audience’s hunger to watch itself as the ’70s stuff — but without the humor, haywire electricity or invigorating loucheness. (Boy, do you do miss those now.) Here, too, are pandering and cut corners; here is leaning on genre presets that render atrocity redundant.

Some of this work is trying to capture the surrealism of racism that Jordan Peele invented for “Get Out.” But while that movie introduced to popular culture a critique of white covetousness of Black personhood, it was also about the fear of the loss of oneself, about the plunge into a “sunken place” that results in racial lobotomy. The scares are external. More crucially, they’re existential.

Within a year, George Floyd has become an irrevocable symbol of tragedy, reckoning and reform. That kind of transfiguration snuffs out the complexity of his everyday humanity. It’s akin to the flattening done by some popular art, where the premium’s placed not so much on characters (or, for that matter, character) but on concepts and theses; history lessons and did-you-knows. That’s why people remain drawn to Peele’s film and especially to Lee’s. There’s human mystery in them: Why are we like this? People are their genre.


Songs of Pain and Defiance

DaBaby was defiant. Noname incensed and gutted in just 70 seconds. Lil Baby frustrated, overflowing, ambivalent. Beyoncé opted for exuberance. The music that flowed from young Black artists in the days, weeks and months after the murder of George Floyd — and the killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and too many others — represented a spectrum from beauty to pain, resilience to exhaustion, but never resignation. These were songs for demonstration or for the solitude of headphones — even for the Billboard charts, the Grammys, the club. “This a new vanguard,” Noname rapped, softly yet insistent. “I’m the new vanguard.”


The Many Faces of George Floyd

What does it mean to be the face of a movement? And what does it cost?

Chances are you know what George Floyd looks like. Whether or not you watched the video of his death, you’ll have seen his face not just on the news but in the streets: on murals, on posters, on masks, on T-shirts.

It’s not uncommon for an image of the dead to become public domain — images help us memorialize, humanize, remember. And yet in the past year, George Floyd has been omnipresent.

In a mural in Houston he wears a hoodie and a pair of angel wings, the words “Forever breathing in our hearts” forming a yellow halo above his head. There are tributes in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and even Berlin and the West Bank. Often, he’s placed against a heavenly backdrop of clouds. Or he’s part of a collage: In a mural by the artist Jorit in Naples, Italy, Floyd cries tears of blood next to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X.

Part of the intention here was to reinforce Floyd’s innocence — to assert his place as the victim of a tragedy, to humanize him and spotlight the killings of Black Americans at the hands of the police. And in many ways that campaign was successful: We know Floyd’s name, we recognize his face, and his death incited powerful national protests.

But there’s danger in the proliferation of an image; the individual isn’t the same as the image, and that individual can be lost in the very movement his image comes to represent. That once as a kid, Floyd wrote that he wanted to be a Supreme Court justice, that in high school he had the nickname “Big Friendly,” that he spent some time homeless — an image can’t account for these details or replace the work they do in realizing the enormity of a human life. As soon as Floyd became the face of a movement — even one that called for citizens to remember the victims as individual people with individual lives (“Say Their Names”) — he nevertheless became synecdochal, a symbol of Black America.

Browse Etsy and Redbubble and Amazon and Teepublic: You’ll see George Floyd’s face on T-shirts and throw pillows and socks. What began as a tribute can quickly transform into a brand. Blackness is too often commodified already — slavery being our nation’s earliest and cruelest example — so the sale of a Black man’s image is an unfortunate continuation of that tradition.

But this also raises the question: Why George Floyd? Which isn’t to say he is not worthy of memorial, but in a country that so routinely kills its Black citizens, where the list of names goes on ad infinitum, what faces get remembered, and why?

Before Floyd, the image of Trayvon Martin in his hoodie — and sometimes the hoodie on its own, divorced from its wearer — seemed to appear everywhere. And when Breonna Taylor was killed, artists and volunteers painted a 7,000-square-foot mural to her in Annapolis, Md.

The increase in surveillance — police body cams, iPhone videos from witnesses — thankfully helps allow for more accountability of police officers facing Black citizens. Yet it also presents the question of how “photogenic” a fatality is: Do we see the person’s face? How much footage do we have of the event? Did we hear their last words?

Can a tragedy be recreated into artwork, or the poster image of a movement, or sold as a souvenir? Though not always intentional, the cruel alchemy of circumstances — including the manner of death, the publicity around it and the cultural temperature of the moment — characterizes how iconic a Black victim will be.

On the striking June 2020 cover of The New Yorker, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, George Floyd’s face interrupts part of the magazine logo, and the silhouette of his body contains the images of other Black figures recently past or long gone: Ahmaud Arbery, Laquan McDonald, Alton Sterling, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, Rodney King.

It’s a beautiful piece of art, and works to restore dignity to Floyd’s image, which many of us first saw in that infamous video of his death. And yet so many faces on that cover are unfamiliar, and so many political messages and manners of death (some brutal, some natural) are conflated, as though they’re all Black martyrs to equivalent circumstances.

But these lives and deaths weren’t at all the same. And Floyd’s image, retrofitted as a receptacle for the others, shouldn’t be made to hold the weight of every Black tragedy that came before. It’s essential that we pay attention to context, to the traditions of American oppression, and yet that shouldn’t overshadow each individual loss — each face, each character.

It’s difficult to hold the same space for both grief and protest, art and commodity. One always seems to obscure the other. Even as the image of George Floyd stays with us, we must remember how many faces are forgotten. When we build an afterlife for the dead — from murals, shirts and signs — we may lose sight of the very lives we try to honor.


Revisiting Monuments, Revisiting History

In July 2018, a year after a white supremacist rally in nearby Charlottesville, Va., left a woman dead, a blue-ribbon commission advised the mayor of Richmond on what to do with the capital’s Confederate statues: integrate them into “a holistic narrative” that “acknowledges the emotional realities the Monument Avenue statues represent.” Well, they sure got that. In the days following George Floyd’s murder, protesters ringed Richmond’s Robert E. Lee memorial with graffiti, and soon after, they toppled a nearby statue of Jefferson Davis, dragging the Confederate president in the streets. Two Richmond artists began projecting images of Black heroes and victims on Lee’s plinth. By summer, as statues of Stonewall Jackson and other Confederates were dismantled, Monument Avenue had turned into a 24-hour protest, meeting point, cookout and dance party. It says a lot about the state of art today when so-called destruction has more aesthetic power than new painting and sculpture, but perhaps it’s best if we understand what happened in Richmond as its own kind of creation — as acts, that is, capable of reconstituting and not merely responding to our past. The statue of Lee still stands on Monument Avenue, ringed now by a protective fence. The statue of Jackson is at a sewage treatment plant.


Our Bookshelves, Ourselves?

As protesters marched across the country last summer, reading lists were shared in living rooms and on social media, as a quieter effort toward change. If 2020 started off with vigorous debates over authenticity and “trauma porn,” with the publication of Jeanine Cummins’s novel “American Dirt” in January, it ended up in a very different place. Are we what we read? A glance at a selection of the books dealing explicitly with the subject of race that America sent to the New York Times best-seller list during this period of upheaval can offer a window into the shifting of our collective consciousness.

“Such a Fun Age,” by Kiley Reid Before Karens were named, but not before they existed, Reid’s debut novel (which notched a monthslong spot on the list in January 2020) used the story of a young Black woman, her white boyfriend and her white employer to raise worthy questions about how even — especially? — so-called progressive, white liberals can end up using the Black people in their lives to demonstrate their own progressiveness.

“How to Be an Anti-Racist,” by Ibram X. Kendi On June 14, 2020 — less than three weeks after the murder of George Floyd — Kendi’s 2019 book returned to the list once again, and stayed there. (Robin DiAngelo’s blockbuster 2018 book “White Fragility” had already been on the list, a first stop for many white readers aiming to learn how to Talk About Race.) There’s no such thing as being nonracist, the book argues: There are only racists and those who actively oppose racist ideas and policies in their everyday lives. Readers sought out Kendi’s words as many Americans started to take a new, overdue look at our complicity in systemic injustice.

“The Vanishing Half,” by Brit Bennett Bennett published her second novel on June 2, and it remains a best seller today. Following decades in the lives of identical, light-skinned Black twins raised in a small town in Jim Crow-era Louisiana, Bennett’s multigenerational story asks: If race is a construct, who does and does not get to choose theirs?

“Caste,” by Isabel Wilkerson In August, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author published her first book in a decade, comparing anti-Black racism in America to the Hindu treatment of untouchables and the extermination of Jews in Nazi Germany. Years in the making, this best seller offered a global, historical, cross-cultural context for the civil rights movement that had begun only months before it hit shelves.

“The Hate U Give,” by Angie Thomas This novel about a teenager who witnesses a police officer kill her childhood friend debuted at the top of the young adult list when it was published in 2017. Thomas’s inspiration in writing it had been the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant III, an unarmed 22-year-old Black man, in Oakland, Calif., in 2009. While it speaks directly to our current moment, “The Hate U Give” has also spoken to many before, spending 214 weeks on the list in the past four years.


Making Museums Move Faster

It was a rough year for art museums, a year of forced consciousness-raising and reckoning. Covid-19 shut them down, raising the specter of financial disaster. Black Lives Matter activism presented them with a different, subtler threat: total irrelevance. In the wake of the murder in Minneapolis of George Floyd, it became clear that the visual culture that counted now wasn’t to be found in the galleries of elite-and-proud institutions. It was online, on city walls, in the street. Museums got the message and scrambled to respond. But, unpracticed in civil engagement, they flailed and embarrassed themselves. Hastily issued declarations of anti-racist solidarity came across as the too-little-too-late gestures they were. When, last summer, the Whitney Museum of American Art tried to hustle up a show of new activist work but failed to pay some of the artists involved, the effort was met with outrage. But there have been encouraging developments. In April, the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky., opened a major exhibition dedicated to the memory of Breonna Taylor. The show was assembled in just four months — overnight, in museum time — setting a benchmark for how museums can be activists of history, not just custodians. In New York City, a post-lockdown Guggenheim Museum has temporarily transformed itself into what feels like an old-style alternative space, filling its galleries with politically timely work. And in Washington, D.C., the conservative National Gallery of Art recently announced change where it really counts: internally. A leadership team that was, until very recently, 100 percent white is now composed of more than half people of color. If this is the start of a new normal, I more than welcome it. I have zero nostalgia for the old one.

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