April 9, 2018

VSB: Dear White People, If a Memorial Dedicated to Lynchings of Black People Makes You Uncomfortable, Good

Panama Jackson—Very Smart Brothas:

On April 26 of this year, the Equal Justice Initiative will open both a memorial and museum in Montgomery, Ala., dedicated to the victims of lynching in America post-Civil War. The memorial is called the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and the museum is called the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. Both were featured with a first-look on Sunday evening’s episode of 60 Minutes.

With reporting done by Auntie O (Oprah Winfrey), the story included a trip to the memorial and museum with the Equal Justice Initiative’s director, Bryan Stevenson.

The soon-to-be-opened monument is riveting in its execution. It features more than 800 pillars hanging from the ceiling, representing the more than 800 counties in America where lynchings have been recorded, and each pillar includes the names and dates (if known) of the victims.

(Emphasis mine.)

I saw a piece about the new memorial and museum on the CBS Sunday Morning show, I think, months ago. The part where the camera came up under the hanging columns as the journalist described their meaning flat-out chilled me. My mind stumbled over their import a second or two before the words were spoken—it’s difficult not to understand what those many brown, hanging columns represent—and it felt like a wave of sadness and not a little shame washed over me.

Keep in mind this is a memorial and museum to an American tradition of oppression now almost three hundred, ninety-nine years long. It has come in varying practices and legalities and manifests no more visibly today than the over-policing of black communities nationwide. “Unarmed black man shot by police” has become commonplace.

Later in his article, Jackson writes

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. Martin Luther King Jr. said that, and the people who whitewash his mentality and messaging will one day learn what that means.

While I imagine that black people and white people who feel guilt will be the visitors of the museum—and let’s be real, it will be ripe for racist vandalism—I’m glad museums and memorials like this exist to shed more light on this country’s past.

Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.

Dr. King was a radical in his time and reviled among the majority of the majority-white population. His story has been whitewashed, his person turned into a kindly, benevolent elder, but all you need do is actually read his words to understand the change he was seeking and why folks with nothing more than their whiteness going for them hated what he was doing.

I think we’re in the early stages of repeating something extremely bloody and devastatingly consequential in American history. Its echo needn’t be violent, but every day the reality of Living While Black continues makes it more likely it’ll be a harsh awakening.

The South African policy of apartheid lasted less than American ethnic inequality. They ended their sins with a truth and reconciliation commission. It didn’t mend that country’s ethnic and economic divisions, but it did lay bare their sources and allow into political power the long-oppressed. Simple demographics may do much the same for us.

#racism #lynchings