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for the next chapter of Race and Revolution, an art exhibition that explores patterns of systemic racism by pairing historical documents with contemporary artworks.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.
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.