Of Imaginary Spheres in Breonna Taylor’s Case
On the 13th of March 2020, Breonna Taylor, an unarmed black woman, was shot to death in the middle of the night by police officers in Kentucky, USA. After police entered her home with a so-called no-knock warrant and the fatal bullets hit Taylor, she received no medical attention for more than 20 minutes. Meanwhile, her alarmed family was left without any information about Taylor’s medical state for hours.1
Through in depth investigations, the public later learned that the shooting was a deadly mistake: the five involved, white police officers were searching for a drug dealer suspected in Taylor’s neighbourhood, whom she used to date, but had ended all contact with long before the incident.² The officers simply were standing in front of the wrong home.
Why did Breonna Taylor have to die? This essay does not attempt to answer the pressing, multi-factual questions provoked by Breonna Taylor’s death. It rather wants to focus on the image chosen by news outlets to accompany the coverage of Taylor´s case.
The intimate photo used by news outlets such as the German daily newspaper “Tagesspiegel” shows Taylor smiling, wearing a navy blue, armless uniform shirt and black pants while holding on to her freshly earned certificate and a bouquet of flowers. Arranged behind her are four flagpoles, of which the first three on the right carry unidentifiable flags. However, the flag on the far left can clearly be identified as the US flag, by its red stripes and white stars, scattered over a blue surface. Her mother later stated that Taylor had just graduated from medical school, fulfilling her long dream of becoming a nurse.³
The killing of Breonna Taylor was one of the first in an unfaithful row of police-involved shootings occurring in the USA to receive international attention in 2020. It served as one of the main drivers of wide-scale, international demonstrations that erupted in 2020’s spring and summer over policing, racial injustice and police brutality.
Taylor was shot in order to prevent her, mistaken for an anonymous, sought-after drug dealer, from shooting the white police officers invading her home. This sentiment echoes the postbellum belief that the inherently evil black must be repressed to keep it from brutalising the white body.4 Our imagination of the racial “other” is widely formed by images projected on our minds by pop-culture as well as news outlets, among others.
“For a black person, to be integrated, he [or she] must either become non-black, or display superhuman and/or infrahuman characteristics.” 5
Following this statement, Taylor could only become unmistakably innocent and one of the “Black Lives Matter” movement’s leading symbols post death by focusing on her loving, hard-working and caring character. The chosen image of Taylor receiving her diploma was able to decode and translate this sentiment for a vast majority of international news recipients.
The viral image of Breonna Taylor proudly posing with her diploma perfectly feeds into the narrative, situating her and her case in a kind of over earthly imaginary. Post her brutal death, Taylor’s image was translated to a kind of angelic portrait by several artists. This strategy for redemption seems to be agreed upon widely by Taylor’s supporters, which becomes most evident in the later memeification6 of her image: mostly used to share on social media, the colourful paintings of Taylor in profile assemble flowers around her head and portray her smiling peacefully. By aesthetically composing pleasant decor, color and image, they produce easily consumable commodities. Spiraling back to this essay’s main thesis, the highlighted images are evidence of the constant pursuit of making the innocence of black police brutality victims unmistakably clear by letting them seem superhuman and angelic. Merging in Amy Sheral’s piece created for the August 2020 Vanity Fair cover, the general pursuit of setting Taylor in a magical, otherworldly quality, becomes most evident.7 But Taylor’s image is not a commodity nor an aesthetic abstraction, but a reality we have to confront ourselves with.
Clearly, there is value in creating positive images of black people and spreading them throughout a predominantly white society, historically marked by racist stereotypes and their reproduction. Breonna Taylor was an essential worker, an emergency medical technician and worked in an Emergency Room to save lives. She was loved and appreciated by her family and friends and her career is evidence for her ability and ambition. But let us not forget, that it is also worth fighting for a person’s justice if they fail to fit our imagination of infallibility and superhumanness. Circulating images of Taylor should not reduce her to her most angelic characteristics, nor should they place her in a fantastic, imaginary sphere.
1 Richard A. Oppel Jr., Derrick Bryson Taylor, Nicholas Bogel Burroughs, “What to Know About Breonna Taylor’s Death,” New York Times, December 29, 2020,
2 Joseph Diaz, Haley Yamada, “A look at Breonna Taylor’s connection to ex-boyfriend Jamarcus Glover before she died,” ABC, November 19, 2020.
3 Oppel Jr., Taylor, Burroughs, “What to Know About Breonna Taylor’s Death.”
4 Joao Costa Vargas, Joy A. James, “Refusing Blackness-as-Victimization. Trayvon Martin and the Black Cyborgs,” Pursuing Trayvon Martin Historical Contexts and Contemporary Manifestations of Racial Dynamics, no. 1 (2012): 196.
6 Layla Halabian, “Breonna Taylor’s Death is not a Meme. Say her Name, but not Like this,” Nylon, November 20, 2020, https://www.nylon.com/entertainment/breonna-taylor-not-a-meme.
7 Miles Pope, “Amy Sherald on Making Breonna Taylor’s Portrait,” Vanity Fair, August 24, 2020, https://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2020/08/amy-sherald-on-making-breonna-taylors-cover-portrait.
Written by Savannah Jade Thümler
In all fairness and admitting that all above is correct, still AKK was the main person since she was inaugurated…