Two Weeks at Tuskegee: Or Wow! This country is in a lot of pain

This has been a tough couple of weeks. Last summer, when a certain upcoming election was still wearing heavily on my mind, I decided I needed to better understand how the United States has, historically, created an “other”, that group of people who becomes the scapegoat in times of economic or physical turbulence. Where better to go than Tuskegee University, which holds the largest archives of lynchings in the United States? So here I am, at the end of a two-week research residency in Alabama, researching racial terrorism.

After 9/11 Newsweek published a title story “Why They Hate Us”. At they time I was teaching high school English. This cover photo and title so enraged me, so disgusted me by how irresponsible and inflammatory it was that I immediately bought a copy.

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The image and its heading became a teaching tool for my persuasive writing unit: How does this magazine encourage xenophobia and Islamophobia? What responsibility do news sources have to present a perspective that does not incite fear and misunderstanding? Etc, etc.  As I was researching newspaper sources on historical acts of domestic terrorism these past two weeks, these same questions occurred to me. How has media and how does media contribute to the perception of “other” as something to be feared and something to blame?

I spent time these past couple of weeks reading newspaper articles about lynchings written between 1899-1938, and counting the number of times the word “Negro” was used in place of “man”, “woman”, “person”, or “child”. In one article a young man was presented to the newspaper’s audience only as “negro” and “prisoner”. Might I add that the teenager in the story had not yet been found guilty of anything? Seldom was the person stated by his or her gender. Sometimes the word “boy” replaced “negro”, but these were rare occurrences.

Satire, an expressive tool I usually love, became a weapon when Northern papers reported on lynchings. I wonder if it is ever appropriate to use irony when addressing something so violent, toxic, and painful. Also, I am reminded of how satire used during the Election 2016 cycle wound up alienating voters who were wary of the political establishment. Could the same have been true during the years lynchings reached their peak?

Senator Bilbo from Mississippi said during the 1938 filibuster over the Anti-lynching Law that was being proposed“Take out the 12,000,000 negroes and there will be a job for every white boy and every white girl.”

Why, in this country, does it constantly become one against the other? And how is this “other” determined? Why in a country that raises a torch in the spirit of Independence is it so terrifying to be a non-white male? Why, whenever someone challenges our thinking around the creation of “other” is there such a violent, repulsive backlash? Most importantly how can we learn to remain open to differences and things that challenge our perspectives and understandings of the world around us. Different is not wrong. Different has no judgment. It is just different.

Selma to Montgomery and Voters’ Rights

Yesterday I drove from Montgomery to Selma, Alabama the same route taken by men, women, and children who were protesting for the right to vote in 1965. edmund-pettus-bridge

The Edmund Pettus bridge was the most pivotal point of all three of the 1965 marches: the first ended in police violence so extreme that day is now referred to as “Bloody Sunday”. The second march also ended abruptly at the bridge because the police – once again – threatened violence. By the third march, LBJ offered support via the National Guard, who were waiting on the far side of the bridge. The marchers walked fifty miles in four days, stopping at campsites along the way. By the time they reached the State Capitol Building in Montgomery, they were 25,000 strong!

Though Martin Luther King, Jr, who led the second and third march, was not allowed on the steps or inside of the Capitol Building, the point was made; people wanted and deserved the right to vote, a right that had initially been granted in 1870, through the passage of the 15th Amendment.

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Two protesters were murdered. Many more were beaten. And this country is still trying to instill bogus restrictions on voting rights.

This summer, while working at Race and Revolution on Governors Island, when the upcoming election was hot on everyone’s mind, three men came to visit the exhibition. Another man was in the space exploring on his own. At some point the four men began talking to each other, and the subject of voters’ rights came up. One of the men had strong memories of how terrified and intimidated African American people were by the act of registering to vote and then voting. As I listened to these men share memories and experiences, I reflected on how I have approached the privilege of voting. I had been negligent in the past not considering how so many people had fought and died for the right to vote and why having the right to vote was so terrifying to those who hold power, and, therefore, so important to respect.

The Election of 2016 has been contentious, to say the least. But what, to me, was the most upsetting is how many people thought that withholding their vote was an act of rebellion against the candidates and the Government. How is it rebellious to not have a voice – or to take away your own voice?

I Saw a Noose Today.

I’m in Alabama researching for the next chapter of Race and Revolution, an art exhibition that explores patterns of systemic racism by pairing historical documents with contemporary artworks. Since the election of 2016 the focus will be on how this country creates an “other” through which we can channel all of our fears and scapegoat, leading to acts of terrorism and, in some cases, murder. Murder that has a twinge of justice backing it is called lynching. Lynching can take the form of hanging and burning and is sometimes done through shooting.

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Tuskegee University, founded by Booker T. Washington on July 4, 1881, has the most comprehensive data on lynchings in the United States, so I am in Alabama. The map above is from the Tuskegee archives, but it only covers thirty years of lynching history, the time period that was consider the pinnacle of lynching related deaths. The noose mentioned in the heading is on display in one of the record rooms, where lawyers from the Equal Justice Initiative were looking through documents to support their Community Remembrance Project.

The noose was donated by a grand nephew or cousin – I was too busy trying not to cry to be paying much attention. It was made with three different parts to it. A bull whip had been used for the loop that goes around the neck. The archivist explained that the the man who was lynched was first whipped. There was normal rope, about 1/2″ thick, that was used to wrap around the tree. The third part of the noose was a flat rope; I was told there are three blood stains on it. This portion of the noose was used to wrap and display the body. There is no way to paint this picture that isn’t going to make the stomach turn and the eyes well up. It was a disgusting display that was used for a disgusting act. Yet, it happened. And it happens.

So my question today, and pretty much everyday since I started this research, is how do we come to meet these stories that expose the darkest depths of humanity to learn from them and to find places of compassion? The archivist at Tuskegee told me that doing this work will make me a better person. I am here. Let’s see what unfolds.