Homegoing: Transforming the Datafication of Black Death into the Recovery & Restoration of Black Humanity

We have been counting Black lives lost to COVID-19 for close to a year. Assiduously combing through death announcements, obituaries, social media, and memorial projects, we scrape and extract whatever we can to tally the scores of people that COVID-19 has cruelly robbed Black families and communities of over the course of the pandemic.

Our goal? Initially, we counted out of sheer helplessness as we watched COVID-19 run unchecked in many Black communities across the United States. Counting eased our anxiety about our privilege…our ability to work and attend school from home. However, over time, we grew to understand our counting as an assignment, as Rene Payne, founder, and director of included, a multi-disciplinary creative studio that designed the COVID Black website, would say. Yet, we had been called to not simply chronicle Black life cut short by the pandemic, but to recover and restore Black humanity from COVID-19….to provide a “Homegoing”…a space where Black people’s humanity is fully realized.

In many ways, our labor has been unexceptional…commonplace in its prevalence in the history of humankind. Jacqueline Wernimont, author of Numbered Lives Life and Death in Quantum Media writes, “Counting the dead has long been a crucial activity for the living.” The regular drumbeat of COVID-19 mortality numbers through data dashboards, data trackers, and charts and graphs represent how inured we are to the datification of death.

Memorial projects such as Faces of COVID and numerous efforts across the United States to honor the dead seek to ameliorate the habituation of quantitative COVID-19 data. These projects compel us to stop and recognize the humanity and the stories of people who have succumbed to the disease

However, chronicling the stories and lives of Black people who have passed is never simple. It is always bound up with negotiating the dehumanization that is a mainstay of the daily existence of Black life. Poet, Claudine Rankin, writes, “Historically, there is no quotidian without the enslaved, chained or dead black body to gaze upon or to hear about or to position a self against.” Thus the shroud of structural anti-Black racism that functions as the core of the disproportionate number of Black people who have succumbed to COVID-19, hovers above projects that seek to memorialize those who have passed on. For example, The Undefeated’s project, Honoring Black Lives Lost to COVID-19, preface their profiles of Black lives with the following statement:

“We’re dying because we’re disproportionately considered “essential” workers (with jobs deemed critical to the everyday functioning of society, but without the pay grade, safety protections, or regard the term would imply), which puts us at greater risk of exposure. We’re dying because we’re underinsured. We’re dying because doctors don’t believe us when we say we’re sick. We’re dying from the American experiment, which is like the Tuskegee experiment writ large. Even in its most quotidian iterations — commuting, working, going for a jog — it carries the risk of death for Black people.”

The data that we collected told a story similar to what The Undefeated proclaimed. We found that much of it revealed that Black people who die from COVID-19 are often essential workers, employed in positions where they are much more likely to interact with the public than their white counterparts. Others suffer from the burden of comorbidities, further manifestations of structural racism that creates Black American vulnerability to COVID-19. Despite the importance of our data analysis, we endeavored to move beyond the datification of Black death for the simple awareness of long-established white supremacist structures that harm Black people. Instead, we sought to use data to recover and restore Black humanity. “Homegoing” represents our efforts in this regard.

A technology of recovery drives “Homegoing” and transforms both existing quantitative and qualitative data on Black death into a visual restoration of Black humanity. The project is grounded in the cultural history of enslaved African people who viewed death, despite its painful resonance, as a celebration and an occasion to return “home,” …a release from earthly misery. In a similar vein, “Homegoing” uses data on the loss of Black life to create a site of remembrance that honors Black life in its fullest and richest form and provides a refuge from the totalizing oppression of racism in American society

How did we accomplish this? First, we have carefully curated biographical profiles for 500 Black people who have lost their lives to COVID-19. Yet, rather than focusing on their last days as they struggled to breathe or documenting their efforts to get tested, we have strategically chosen to weed out any mention of the pandemic in most cases. While we know this information is critical to understanding how structural inequity contributed to many Black Americans’ death, “Homegoing’s” goal is to highlight and celebrate Black life in its full bloom as an act of resistance. Like historical homegoing services, “Homegoing” rejects the anguish of racism as a defining feature of Blackness. Nonetheless, our inclusion of the original source of the death announcement affirms our commitment to revealing the full complexity of Blackness..the joy and the pain…in the United States.

Black people’s denial of the long reach of racism in the afterlife is also represented in the gold data symbols floating upward. They represent a transition…a journey to a place free of the violent effects of racism and other forms of oppression… that many Black Americans believe their loved ones experience after their passing. The length of the symbols corresponds to the lifespan of the person. For example, shorter symbols signify a shorter life…our youth, while longer symbols convey longevity….our elders. Our emphasis on age is a nod, in part, to many Black Americans’ recognition of their African cultural ancestry in their veneration of the elders…the ancestors…as a sign of respect.

When one runs the cursor over the data symbols they light up in red as does a corresponding photograph of a person. We chose the color red as it also calls on our West African cultural heritage, specifically Ghana, where red is worn by many individuals at funerals to “show how deeply they feel about the loss of their loved one.” We hold each person’s life in “Homegoing” in the highest regard. Our use of red reflects the deep, collective connection that Black people feel to one another, irrespective of an established personal relationship.

Clicking on the symbol prompts a profile to appear which offers deeper insight into the person’s life. Each person is referenced by a title preceding their surname. We have used no first names. Over the course of their presence in the United States, White Americans assumed, “without permission, that they have the right to call Black people by their first names” and often refused to give surnames to enslaved African people to designate them as less than human...as lacking selfhood. We seek redress by ensuring that no one in “Homegoing” suffers this indignity.

We hope “Homegoing” offers some solace to Black families and communities unable to have traditional funeral and homegoing services due to social distancing and restrictions on public gatherings. We hope it will serve as a space for Black people to collectively grieve, celebrate, and honor their loved ones’ transition. Just as importantly, we seek to transform the datification of Black death into a process of recovery and restoration of Black humanity.

Whether you have lost someone or not to COVID-19, we ask you to join in “Homegoing” by Remembering Black lives and Restoring Black humanity.

Kim Gallon is the Director and Founder of COVID Black. Learn more about COVID Black by clicking here.

Redefining Health Data…Connecting Black Communities to their Data.