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Robin Williams and Michael Brown: Why do we mourn one and not the other?

At the same time as mentions of Williams have flooded my social media timelines, so have mentions of Michael Brown, the African-American teenager shot and…

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I’ve long said that in our fractured world, the internet and popular media have the power to make us feel “in community.” We see it most readily in the way broad fan-bases, like those built around Dr. Who, Justin Bieber and sport teams, rejoice and commiserate together, online and off, depending on the developments of the day. We see it today in the way people are commenting and reacting to actor Robin Williams’ death, apparently a suicide.

It’s a funny thing about actors who have attained the celebrity and renown of a Robin Williams. We feel we know them. We remember how their moments are keyed to our own lives. When I started writing this I thought about the movies with Williams in them that I best enjoy. Jumanji (which I watched countless times with my daughter when she was very young) and The Birdcage (which I watched countless times with my daughter when she was not quite as young) are inextricably tied to my heart, not necessarily by their own merits but by association.

With public figures like Williams — or Maya Angelou and Gabriel García Márquez — we grieve in community. For what these human beings meant to us; for their messy, imperfect and glorious lives; for ourselves living in a world that no longer holds their particular genius.

At the same time as mentions of Williams have flooded my social media timelines, so have mentions of Michael Brown, the African-American teenager shot and killed by a police officer Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo. It is a heartbreaking juxtaposition for a number of reasons: one was a man in his middle years, the other was a youngster; one had attained incredible success, the other was just starting out; one reportedly took his own life, the other was shot to death; one was white, the other was Black.

There is much that needs to be said about the systemic power imbalances in our nation, and how the deaths of young Black men (barely more than children really) like Brown and Trayvon Martin, are symptomatic of the deep and abiding racism that too often finds welcome in just those systems of authority and power. Fortunately there are a number of fantastic writers who are talking about that right now, like Kara Brown and Jonathan Blanks, or have been talking about it for a long time, like Mikki Kendall. We need to seek out these reports/storifies/essays, we need to hear the reality that is being elucidated.

But we also need to explore why we, as a nation, mourn communally for some people and not for others. Why we accord the tragic end of the life of a celebrity so more time and personal investment than the tragic snuffing out of the life of a teenager. The grief that can be felt in Williams’ daughter Zelda’s “Little Prince” quote tweet after her father’s death is no greater than the grief that can be seen in the photo of Brown’s father carrying a handwritten sign about police executing his unarmed son. Yet many of us have responded to the first with sympathy, the second with detachment.

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Loss is loss, we know this personally if not societally, but there is a sort of facile meritocracy that has taken place as these two deaths abut each other in the news, and we need to examine this if we hope to build a real sense of community in our nation. Yes, the differences in our response to Williams and Brown has to do with issues of race and power. It also has to do with the way we let those who are celebrated into our hearts under the illusion that we know them, and how we bar from that same heart those who aren’t famous or celebrated, under the illusion that we can’t possibly know them. That they aren’t us.

The news media, especially, needs to own up to the fact that we have reported on one of these “news stories” with warmth of remembrance, and the other with cursory sort of dispassion.

Today, Williams’ and Brown’s loved ones will be wondering how it is possible that the earth is still in orbit around the sun even as their own worlds are at a standstill from their profound, unanswerable losses. Though the circumstances of Williams’ and Brown’s deaths are quite different than those of my parents’ deaths, I remember that all-encompassing bereavement very well. And, you know what? The figurative and literal arms around me at the moment were the only things that helped — even for just the shortest of moments.

I wonder if a nation can do that. I wonder if a media can do that. I wonder if we can put our figurative and virtual arms around Williams’ and Browns’s loved ones, not in consolation — what consolation could there possibly be?— but in community, in human fellowship, in shared grief over lives that ended too soon.

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