From “Raising Awareness” to “Bearing Witness”: Black Paper, the Film Mass, and our Anemic Public Discourse on US Gun Violence

In Black Paper, Teju Cole excavates what it means to write, to think, to make art in dark times. The book reads as an almost incessant invitation to bear witness as he criss crosses continents and time in a distressing “meditation” (so book jacket speak often goes) on human suffering. “Bearing witness” is crucial and defensible, he maintains, in contrast to merely “raising awareness”—something that he rates as obscene in its neutrality. “Raising awareness” is an end in itself—a nod to acknowledgement that compels nothing other than fleeting recognition. It doesn’t imply a moral judgment; it doesn’t require action. It simply adds another instance to the mountainous fact of human suffering. “Raising awareness” can clock a hurricane in another region, a humanitarian disaster on another continent, a political coup in some other (and othered) country, an exploding star somewhere else far away in the galaxy…it doesn’t really matter how or what is at stake, because the stakes of “raising awareness” are always already at the level of superficiality.

“Bearing witness,” though, is something else entirely. Cole says that to bear witness is to have already chosen sides—this “sided-ness” is precisely because to bear witness means a kind of closeness, a kind of involvement, a kind of interested-ness that is at once epistemologically vindicating (you saw it first hand, so we believe you) as well as morally questionable (but why were you there in the first place?). I can’t help thinking of the infamous saying from Detroit’s crime peak, when law enforcement attempted to break the solidarity of the communities they policed by jailing not just suspects who refused to confess but also witnesses who refused to give up the story police wanted: “only in Detroit is it a crime to be a witness.”

Similarly, my mind goes to the stigma that often surrounds those who are up close to the fall-out of gun violence, especially survivors of color in marginalized communities: parents who have had their children taken by gun homicide; children who lose a parent to gun suicide; siblings, co-workers and classmates who together experience gun violence in their home, their workplace or schools. Rather than honoring the ways in which gun violence survivors bear witness to the cruelty of human suffering and accepting the invitation to bear witness with them, onlookers too often blame the victim (“he must have been doing something wrong”), blame the survivor (“who raises a kid like that?”), even blame the neighborhood and school (“What do you expect in a place like that?”) in order to maintain distance between themselves and the reality of gun violence in the US.

These onlookers may even be aware of the surging figures: that gun violence increased nearly 30% in 2020, the largest jump in six decades; that the Great Violent Crime Decline of the 1990s is decidedly over; that while the year-to-year increased eased, over 20,000 were killed with guns, excluding suicides, in 2021; and that while the pandemic may have paused mass shootings in the US, they returned in 2020 and into 2021 at rates troublingly outpacing predictions from existing mass shooting data. But knowing gun violence exists is not to bear witness to it…the readiness with which so many of us can cite the growing statistics on gun violence does not suggest anything other than that we know. But to know is not to witness.

It’s not clear the extent to which Cole locates “raising awareness” as a tactic chosen by individuals (artists, writers, politicians), versus a choice that is overdetermined by how particular facts, about particular places and particular people, doing particular things are always already constructed as occupying the “over there” of “raising awareness” rather than the “right here, right now” of “bearing witness.” He clearly recognizes the latter, but it’s not clear whether one can bear witness by insisting on doing so—or whether the broader social context in which one chooses to bear witness can mollify that act into one of merely “raising awareness.” That dilemma certainly seems to characterize the context of gun violence in the US, where ever statistic seems so large, so intractable, so overwhelming as to oddly render it abstract rather than an up-close-and-personal problem for those who haven’t directly experienced it. Likewise, the racial, class and gender inequities of gun violence make it all too easy to render it “over there”—somewhere else, not here. And last but not least, those statistics that risk pressing the urgency of gun violence to the point of abstraction aren’t meaningful in and of themselves; the same fear of gun violence may motivate people to run to drastically different sides of the gun debate.

Even as we are overwhelmed with attempts to “raise awareness,” then, there is a striking lack of space for bearing witness to gun violence in the US—for holding space for the human suffering that gun violence threads through American society, pervasively if also unevenly.

Enter the film Mass.

This is a modest film, one that takes place almost entirely around a table set up in the backroom of a church. Two couples motivate the dialogue: one whose son executed a school shooting, the other whose son was killed by the other son. There is nothing that should be particularly compelling about the film—other than that it allows space for a conversation that has been systematically erased from the public conversation about guns.

Yes, I am aware that the film features the very voices that are most heard in public debates about guns: white middle-class parents whose families have been touched by gun violence.  Even in this most privileged space, however, we recognize very early on in the film just how curated our images of victims and surviving families, of grief and bereavement, and of “justice” and “closure” (both meaningless terms in the context) are. The film shows the messiness of loss and love; there are broken sentences, helpless questions, indecisive answers. Neither party knows quite what to do—or even quite why they are in the room talking to one another, other than that their therapist thought it would be a good idea (and the fact that they have a therapist is a big marker of privilege in surviving gun violence.) In the end, there’s an articulation of resolution (I won’t spoil it) that feels awkwardly unexpected and almost forced, and I think this is the point—to show viewers that sometimes the only “closure” for the unimaginable and inexplicable is the one that is forced.

The film finishes with the couples’ stumbling goodbyes and last-minute confessions. It ends almost as awkwardly as it started. And distinguishing it from the many songs, films or other kinds of art about gun violence, the end-credits contained no statistics, no statements about gun policy, no further contextualization. The film, decidedly, did not raise awareness. (And after all, who isn’t aware?) The film, rather, accomplished something else entirely, something that has been systematically foreclosed in the contemporary gun debate as it largely unfolds in the US: it opened up an invitation to bear witness. Nothing more four people talking for just under two hours, film was utterly gripping because it captured, and dwelled upon, the human suffering that radiates out gun violence—across families and over time. The film was compelling precisely because it shows what is systematically missing from how we talk about gun violence in America—and what we so very much need to even take the first step on the road to healing the wounds that gun violence has caused and that incite, in perverse ways, further gun violence.

I just happened to watch Mass alongside reading Cole’s Black Paper, and I can’t get either out of my head. Together, they provide encouragement, and guidance, on how to refuse to look away from human suffering as we enter an era of even more gun violence in the US. Let this not be an era of simply “raising awareness” (of “thoughts and prayers”) but one of “bearing witness” that deepens our capacity for holding human vulnerability in our hearts as we struggle to ease the suffering not just of ourselves but one another as well.

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