Monday, December 15, 2014

eyes wide(er) open

I recently read two descriptions of African American experience that really caught my attention:
"Their blackness alone was license enough to line them up against walls, to menace them with guns, to search them roughly, beat them, and rob them of every vestige of dignity."
"A black man could be walking down the road, minding his own business, and his life could suddenly change by meeting a white man or a group of white men or boys who on a whim decided to have some fun with a Negro."
Was I reading a blog post written since the events in Ferguson, Missouri once again brought a conversation about race to the national consciousness?  Not exactly.

The first was written by the historian Joel Williamson in his book The Crucible of Race; the second passage is found in Dr. James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree.  Neither author is referring to the realities of 2014.  Instead, they're writing about the realities of the late nineteenth to mid twentieth centuries.  Notice anything about their descriptions?

Much of white America has absolutely no idea how different our experiences and those of people of color in this country have been.  Absolutely no idea!  Oh, yes, we  know that slavery was bad, and that segregation was hard, but look at the strides we've made since then!  There's even a black man in the White House!  And didn't Martin Luther King dream of a day when color wouldn't matter?

No.  He didn't.  He dreamed of a day when people wouldn't be "judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."  That he said.  But he never said that we should all become "colorblind" (as if such a thing were possible).  He never said that at all.

Much of white America has absolutely no idea how different the America we live in is from the America that people of color know.  Why can't "they" just put it all behind them?  Really?  Why can't "they" just move on from the past and stop blaming race for all of "their" problems?  You've heard this, right?  I mean, you've heard people saying this for real.  No jokes.  Hell, you and I may have said it at one time or another, too.  (Or, at least, thought it.)  But anyone who says -- or even thinks -- such a thing has absolutely no idea what we're talking about.  No idea at all.

Let's take lynching -- the subject of the book by Dr. Cone that I've just started reading recently.  No one likes to talk about it much, but most liberal/progressive folk will say, if asked, that it was a terrible thing.  We'd all agree with that, right?  And we'd all agree that such an awful aberration should be left behind in the past.

By one count, at least, from 1882-1968 there were 4,743 lynchings in the United States.  3,446 -- 72.7% -- were of black (mostly) men.  It might surprise some to know that not all lynchings were of black people -- 1,297 white people were also lynched.  It's worth noting, of course, that "Many of the whites lynched were lynched for helping the black or being anti lynching ..." (according to the site Lynching Statistics for 1882-1968.)

So ... it was bad.  right?  But much of white America has absolutely no idea how bad.  Did you know that some of the reasons people were lynched included being homeless, injuring livestock, looking "suspicious," and even for skipping rocks!  (A word of warning, if you follow the preceding link you'll come to a site with "10 Outrageous Reasons Black People Were Lynched in America."  The images are graphic and disturbing.)  Just as today, black Americans knew that for absolutely no reason at all they might not come home at the end of the day.  "Their blackness alone was license enough ..."  Dr. Cone notes that the threat of lynching was almost more intimidating than the lynchings themselves.  

But oh how horrific those lynchings were.  Crowds gathered.  Families gathered.  Mom, dad, and the kids would spread out the picnic blanket and make a day of it.  Photos were snapped with people standing near the corpse like fisherman stand proudly with the marlin they'd just caught.  Portable printing operations were set up so that postcards could be made on the spot.  Sometimes the day, time, and place had been advertised; crowds of up to 15,000 -- that's fifteen thousand -- people came out.  How do you "get over" something like that?

A lot of this I knew.  You may have, too.  In a not-too-graphic way it's touched on in history class.  I'd even heard about the crowds.  But there's so much that I didn't know.  So much that I had no idea about.  I didn't know that many of these lynching victims were also burned, and often burned alive.  I didn't know that people from the crowd were invited to cut off body parts to take home as souvenirs.  And that this torture could go on for hours before the hanging itself.  How does anyone "move on" from experiences like these?

Especially -- especially -- because these experiences have not been left in the past.  In August -- August of this year -- a 17-year old boy was found dead, hanging from a swing set.  His death was pronounced a suicide, but the FBI is now investigating because there are elements to the story that don't quite add up.  The last lynching may not have been in 1968.

African Americans who might be reading this post are probably now thinking to themselves, the last lynching may not have been in 1968?  May not?  Is this guy serious?  And they'd be right.  Because in the final analysis lynching was never so much about a particular technique for murdering someone, but about sending a particular message by doing so.  And that message was not hard to decipher -- black lives don't matter.  Black women and men are not the equals of white women and men.  And they never will be.  Don't even try; don't get any crazy ideas about equality or anything like that.

In Dr. Cone's book he draws the obvious -- though largely unexplored -- parallel between crucifixion and the practice of lynching.  He quotes Paula Frederickson from her book Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews:

Crucifixion was a Roman form of public service announcement:  Do not engage in sedition as this person has, or your fate will be similar.  The point of the exercise was not the death of the offender as such, but getting the attention of those watching.  Crucifixion first and foremost is addressed to an audience.

The same is true of lynching.  And it can be argued that the same is true today of the phenomenon of police violence toward people of color.  Yes.  Of course there are times when lethal force is required, and police are working in an incredibly tense environment.  All of that is true.  Yet it is also unarguably true that when the use of deadly force is 21 times more likely when an African American man is on the receiving end, something else is at work.

Michelle Alexander argues quite persuasively in her book The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness that America's "war on drugs" is, at heart, a new expression of the same impulse that fueled segregation.  If you haven't read her book -- read it.  And then look for the parallels between then and now.  As William Faulkner famously said, "The past is never dead.  It's not even past."

My eyes continue to be more widely open.  I know -- I am afraid -- that they will need to be even more open still.  There is so much that I don't yet know, but that doesn't mean it's not part of the discussion.

Pax tecum,


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arthurrashap said...

Well crafted, Rev Wik - and let's say that somehow enough eyes - set over the noses of white people - get opened and stay open. . . . So what?

So we - the white folk - look in the mirror and look into each others' eyes. What do we see? Then we look out and around - we see lots of people - some are black, some are brown, there are all shades. Some are women, some are tall, some are short, some are skinny, some are fat - some are beautiful, some are less so.

How do we get to the place where Dr. King suggested we should go? What is it that will trigger the change your piece seems to call for? What is that change and how is it to be achieved?
What is the answer to "So what?"
Arthur Rashap

RevWik said...

If I knew the answer, Arthur, I'd have probably moved on to the Israeli/Palestinian problem by now.

Part of it, though, is that when we open our eyes we open our ears, also. Overall, white America doesn't know what it's like to be weighed down by systemic racism. We simply don't. And, so, we really can't say exactly how the change is going to need to come.

The fundamental humanity of people of color has been (and is being still) denied in a myriad of ways. White America doesn't know that experience because our humanity is taken as the norm for humanity ... is considered synonymous with "humanity."

So once our -- white -- eyes have been opened enough we can begin to open our ears to hear what black and brown people themselves say will be needed for them to feel that their full humanity is being recognized.

We -- white folk -- need to stop trying to make sense of the experiences of people of color within the context of our own. Let me say that again: We -- white folk -- need to stop trying to make sense of the experiences of people of color within the context of our own. I'd suggest that it would make a world of difference if, instead, we tried to look at our lives -- our experiences as white people in America -- through the lens of the experiences of people of color.

I think, Aurthur, that when we look around at all those different kinds of people you mention we need to also see that there are not only superficial differences in appearances, but deeply different lived experiences. It is SO easy for us -- white folk -- to say, "See? We're all people under the skin ..." without realizing that when we say "people" people of color hear "white people."

I think this post has lots to say on this, too: