Additional Reflections on Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message, The Message is Death

A photograph of a woman with a green blazer and brown hair.
Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell
Community Engagement Specialist
July 9, 2020
A still photo of a video screen.

Arthur Jafa’s powerful video examination of Black life in America, Love is the Message, The Message is Death, was streamed for the first time for 48-hours from Friday, June 26 to 2 p.m. ET Sunday, June 28.

This is the second of two blog posts dedicated to reflections from our community.

At SAAM, we want to be a museum for all. In times of national turmoil, this desire to be a space for all people needs to be realized in actions. Last month, we partnered with the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to stream artist Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message, The Message is Death on our websites for 48 hours beginning Friday, June 26. The video, created in 2016, offers a powerfully moving montage of original and appropriated footage that speaks to our country’s current reckoning in response to ongoing police brutality and violence against Black people. To be a museum for all we need to provide space for community dialogue around these traumatic lived experiences. Thus, this blog highlights voices within our local community—specifically Black and people of color in the arts and creative community. We want to say thank you to these individuals who generously donated their time and intellect to reflect on Jafa’s art, but also on the greater sense of racial injustices experienced across the country. We will continue to work towards being a museum for all.

We will continue to work towards being a museum that addresses racial injustices both within our own behaviors and within our country. For this moment, we are proud to amplify these voices in our community and reflect on the breadth of lived experiences of Black Americans.


All content remains the intellectual property of each contributor, and the responses have not been edited to maintain each individual's voice and style. On Thursday, July 9, at 3 p.m. ET, join us online for a curator-led conversation about Arthur Jafa’s powerful video with curators from SAAM and the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture; registration required.

Holly Bass

Beauty, pathos, black excellence, poverty, pain, ecstatic brilliance

a weeping and a wailing, a jumping and rejoicing 

Not abstraction–distillation  

fall out, fall back, push forward, push back


Like the new kids say: 

This is everything


The arc is an ark, an ancestral totality

captured, a ship of Zion


AJ be obeah with the formula       (spiritual technology)

All god’s chillun=Black       Black=Love       Love=God

—Holly Bass, artist 

Anne Bouie

Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message, The Message is Death is a finely cut diamond: a kaleidoscope of the African American experience. Each facet glistens, and could elicit knee jerk reactions. However, upon reflection, they illuminate the ancient truth that "the whole is something is besides, and, greater than its parts."

One facet does not make a diamond; it could not withstand the pressure of its creation. No single facet captures it all and none can be seen in isolation or disconnected from one another. Yet the diamond would not exist without its many facets, which, when coalesced not only withstand unimaginable pressure, suffocating weight, and heat whose flames rise from the gates of hell, across eons of time and space.

We see the unabashed acceptance of the whole of our humanity. The sacred and the profane, the depths and the heights; the entirety of our individual and collective journey. There is the profound celebration of the soul and sanctification of the spirit where the body is a means of self and collective expression. The Holy Dance is not done in isolation: it is a communal a revelation of the power of Spirt encountered by all who are witnesses. We had us some fun, and a funky good time. There is the unabashed, celebration of sensuality as physical beings—expressive, enticing, yet somehow also imbued with a sense of wholesomeness and joy. We have seen the ecstasy of spirit everywhere, from jook joints to the temple, and places in between. An acknowledgment of the Divine illuminates the diamond, nothing else could have produced it.

We have flown with the eagle on Friday, gone out to play, and then gone to church on Sunday to kneel down and pray. We have had to take nothing and make something; we have been in high cotton and walked up and down our own Wall Street. The Earth has fed us and buried us. The wind has been sweet with the smells of summer and chilled us to the very bone. The fire has destroyed and consumed, it has brought light and warmth. The water has quenched our thirsty souls and swallowed us in its depths.

The film illustrates that art is not done in isolation. It does what many feel art should do. It challenges—even assaults our sensitivities; it reflects, heals, teaches, and transmits messages about who we are; where we have been, and what we should be doing now. It is a part of who we are, and integral to our existence.

Some have been to the mountaintop and told us what they saw and heard. They know us, they know our story, and they whisper, “Walk together children, and don’t let nothin’ stop you now.” They have shown us that, while the message is often death, it is also knowing that joy does come in the morning, and that anything which is loved has, can, is, and will be saved.

—Anne Bouie, artist and independent historian

Akea Brionne Brown

Why us?

It’s a question that's repeated itself in my head ever since I first viewed this piece. There are moments that stick with you forever, and my first time viewing this piece was one of those moments. But less so because of the piece itself, and more because of the realization that it wouldn't quite pierce non-black viewers in the same way as it did for me. It was that type of piercing that cuts so deep, you actually feel it slicing your soul. I remember walking away from this piece in tears, and I thought about the guards (primarily black) who had to watch that video and sit with it every time they showed up for a shift. What does that do to a person? To see how easily the world you live in, discards the value of your beating heart. As if you were a mutated “thing” that wasn’t human and had no place in the world. And in contrast, I thought about what it felt like to look at that piece, have a few moments of reflection, and still carry on with life and all of its possibilities because you're not black? I thought about the mindset of those who felt empowered enough to make decisions about the value of another’s life. What does it say about you, that you see your own value as greater than another's so much, that you destroy everything in your path. It begins with black bodies, mother Earth, and society as a whole; all in the quest for power.

—Akea Brionne Brown, photographer and writer

Sharayna A. Christmas

Love is the Message, The Message is Death presents an intimate multi-layered emotion that reminds me of the necessary expenses that Black people incur in America. In the most revered and intimate way I experience the rhythm in my body, kinda like a mama whisking around a child ...unsure of what is being experienced ... like riding in the back of a car through parallel universes... This masterpiece serves as a constant reminder of our diasporic journey ...competing memories that bring balance and survival.

—Sharayna A. Christmas, Executive Director, Muse 360 Arts 

Billy Colbert

“All these accidents that happen, follow the dot. Coincidence makes sense, only with you. You don't have to speak. I feel emotional landscapes. They puzzle me. Then the riddle gets solved. And you push me up to this state of emergency.”

-Bjork It’s time to hear more voices than our own... Stand together or watch it fall apart.

—Billy Colbert, M.F.A., Director of the Art Department, Artist and Professor of New Media Delaware State University

Melani N Douglass

Quantum Black We return at the same time Return to the same place I look around at my tribe The creator makes no mistakes Ancestors Return infinity seeded with Inside our wombs Moons eclipsing the sun opening hearts and making room for Evolutionary cells Charged by the sun Tesla/Tulsa black love Transforming the fractured to one We bout that Village raising Ego taming Thriving together We been here before This tribes forever My tribe’s forever

—Melani N Douglass, Artist & Founder, Family Arts Museum

David Lewis McDuffie

“A Return to the Time of Amarna”
A Written Reflection of Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message, The Message is Death

News Alert: The waters are troubled; something is wrong
you can tell by the WaVe
the longest walk ever
is now a march towards freedom, life, and stability.
the exquisite movement of our being
in all situations
must be towards LIBERATION
& communication with our ancestors
even in supposed troubled times.
our brilliance
cannot continue to be offered
to wolves
in sheep clothing,
we have mastered ways that aren’t ours.
time to take into our own hands
the flyness of our destiny
and redefine ourselves
as the world keeps turning.
our faith has taken hits
that we have endured
but we shall continue.
the imitations of us
couldn’t match our visible stars
nor those of us unseen
as we sing and shout
about our victories
let us acknowledge
those that did the work
pin point & acknowledge,
the trail created
by those behind the scene
the greatnesses of our DIVINITY
is without fathom….catchable.
the sleeping giant
has awakened!
even aliens can see
we get knocked down and beaten
but get right back up.
knocked down but never counted out
even out numbered.
whether solo or in companionship
we carry the team on our back
while the team carries us in times,
when we need to lean.
the key is
unless we beat ourselves
we cannot be beaten,
our smoothness
is passed down
generation to generation
regardless of how or where we look
we see the signs
of dreams
its time we atone
for the children
Of The Sun
Traveling on rays of light
we must rise
and praise the sun
with arms raised to the sky
to protect our livelihood and future, from terrorism.
a powerful people
wading through waters
listening to the wind on how to move
in battles of biblical proportions
our freestylers are sharp sword holders
with a language universally comprehended
by all
the harsh waters against us we face
like super heroes
that always land on our feet.
turn inward,
and love one another.
we can’t pretend we don’t see
our childrens arms being twisted
let no one stop us

from running to their aid
we must protect them boldly from an empire
where the sun is setting.
stranger things…
have happened in the past
than Kings and Queens being blocked
and being shot at
even if you don’t know what they are.
don’t snooze.
we built this.
looking forward
with 2020 vision
its clear
we ready, for the kick off
don’t let the light stop you
grab the baby girls
and big boys…get ya toys
time to go with the flow
you see the current situation…
might have to step back and snap.
see what I’m saying
the roof is on fire
and the house
aint ours
we just need to be like water.
…pass the burn please
its your turn
at the mic
we will hold you down
and create space
for the forces of nature to blow the scent of lavender.
we got through the worst,
standing tall… 
walking strong,
with family
working the land
nothing can come between us.
we can’t be touched.
tap dance, home
Children of the Sun
burst forth
is our excellence.
buried roots
reconnect and rise
through the waves
of darkness,
like lily flowers,
don’t look back
listen for the trumpets
feel the rhythm
and take flight,
lets knock this out
so we can birth joy and honor
sit and smile
as we watch,
the greatest of falls
Ultra Light Beings
we must say the things that are hard to hear
even when they fall on ears too young for comprehension
because this is a matter of life and death
so reflect on life
and speak faithfully
head high
in stance ready for whatever
move freely with your body
Children of the Sun
& remember that lover who performed and pleaded for you to stay when it was half passed
time to go???…well
now is the time

—David Lewis McDuffie, first artist in residence at The Family Arts Museum

Jackie Milad

I never had a chance to see this film in the context of a museum surrounded by the projections and the sound system of a proper installation. Just like many people, my first experience was with the limited screen and speakers of my computer. Despite this, watching Arthur Jafa’s impactful work in this manner struck me as exactly how it should be. Nearly hugging my laptop, I watched this film on loop several times over, to witness the cycle, yet not quite circular—repeating, "love is the message the message is death", love is the message the message is death, love is the message, the message is death......

Make no mistake, this is not a film to be streamed and forgotten—it's calling for more—we the people want more. So I ask, what will the art institutions who streamed Arthur Jafa's important film, do further—what steps will they take to dismantle the white supremacist power structures they have been built upon?

—Jackie Milad, artist

Monica O. Montgomery

A poem inspired by Arthur Jafa's Love is the Message, The Message is Death BLM, 6.29.2020

We are tired of the whiplash of trigger-less warnings
White tears symbolically sprinkling over years of black pain
Assaulted by the news and new names daily
Bubbling up. Unresolved past and futures full of blame.
Retraumatized by the weight of it all.
Righteous rage in the face of lies
Waking in night terrors, uncontrollable crying,
Finding comfort in loved ones who haven't died.
Cops using guns, horses, hoses and fire
Rubber Bullets, tear gas to extinguish our black lives.
So-called heroes of the every day, trampling rights,
Beating down hope, joy, daughters and Suns,
Those who fit the description they say.
We know they like to harass our joy, steal our light,
And say they felt threatened anyway.
The media specializes in pimping and packaging black pain
Most likely for ratings, parsing out clips and bites
and hashtags of names ended by racism and violence
Floyd, Bland, Tamir, Trayvon,
Ahmaud Arbery, Atatiana Jefferson, Amadou Diallo, Rayshard Brooks,
Freddie Grey, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Korynn Gaines
Elijah McClain, plainly saying:
“Let me go, no let me go, I am an introvert, please respect my boundaries that I am speaking.”
#SayHerName Breonna Taylor, Her killers still run free after home invasion
Fatality. morality lost. Trust shattered of millions.
40 acres of black folks trying to be resilient,
International truth and reconciliation + Reparations needed to aid in healing from hurt feelings.

We are tired of the whiplash of struggling for Dignity
White tears symbolically sprinkling over years of black pain
Time to Divest from this mockery, this game.
Residue of empire and colonization, emotional shame
Convenient amnesia, failed race relations and property seizures
Black Wall Street, Wakanda, Juneteenth. Civil Rights
For some it's a myth, Others see throughlines.
Miseducation, Hidden History. Narratives of mystery
Breathing in defiance and belief of better tomorrows
Uprising from coast to coast, Martyrs echoing sorrow.
Racism rears its ugly head, on monuments and at rallies
Armed in front of homes, within convenience stores and families.

We hug our children and gather together giving them the talk
As we shut the door and whisper revolutionary thoughts
Quote black radical leaders and continue our story…
Scraping together glimmers of black joy
Love, Run, Play, Write, Twerk, Make, Recreate, Congregate, Dance, Dream, Dap, Dab, Dougie, Step in the Name of Love, Flee, Fight, Prank, Hug, Joke, Laugh, Smoke, Rap, Pray, Sing, Travel. Drive, Cry, Side Eye, Question Why?

We are tired of the whiplash of Equal Opportunity
White tears symbolically sprinkling over years of black pain
Wondering, Will we ever be treated fair?
In the boardroom, in the break room, on the block, from the church to the park to the corner
store spot. Will we make it back alive as we strive for equity?
Fourscore summers of dealing with the enemy.
Rampant Hegemony. Frequent Deception.
Nowhere is safe, from the scorching sun
Searing scenes of monstrous, misguided Law & Order
Freedom hard won, Quick to back slide.
We are unsung and so they throw us the crumbs.
As they attempt to block our blessings and unalienable rights,
Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness
Hollow statements of solidarity made by oppressors, aggressors
Leaders, coworkers, neighbors, allies, writing perfect alibis of antiracism and escapism.
Promising more jobs, a listening ear, a seat at the table and a spot on the board,
More space, better pay, a chance to curate, quality education, immigration reform
Business loans, Scholarships to university, a pipeline of diversity; Loyalties torn.
Self Soothe as we constantly feel bereft, besieged, belittled and forlorn.
Statements of solidarity supposedly standing in defense of black life,
Not Heartwarming; Rather Heartless, Heart Wrenching. Problematic.
But deep down we know
These performative versions of Freedom are Faux and Hollow.
And we are ultimately TIRED.


—Monica O. Montgomery, Independent Curator + Cultural Consultant 

Tariq O’Meally

James Baldwin wrote, “All I really remember is the pain, the unspeakable pain; it was though I were yelling up to Heaven and Heaven would not hear me. And if Heaven would not hear me, if love could not descend from Heaven—to wash me, to make me clean—then utter disaster was my portion.” Love is the Message, The Message is Death is a haunting window into the seen and unseen experiences of African Americans. Is this all black people get? Is disaster our portion? Will our legacies forever orbit being terrorized and finding ways to preserve? Must we forever be like Sisyphus? Will we ever know the peace of just being? The peace of being unburdened. Mr. Jafa's work reminds me of my fervent desire to dwell in the serenity of stillness, to be unencumbered by the chains that require us to heal and save this country from itself.

—Tariq O’Meally, artist

Jocelyn Sigue

Documentary producers and directors hold the microphone, write the script and oversee the edit ultimately controlling the narrative. But the image speaks for itself. After watching this haunting montage (just once is enough for me) I wonder which individual image speaks the loudest? Which represents blackness, to whom? Does the world recognize my father on that tractor rising above Jim Crow? Will it see my daughter as a girl worth protecting, whether she’s silent in her yellow pajamas or speaking up in her yellow bikini? Can a people, once counted as just 3/5, become whole individuals without having to share their collective pain again and again?

—Jocelyn Sigue, producer/director


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