INTERSECTIONS OF AGENCY AND ATROCITY
white cultural denials and racial reality
The image is black and white; the grain slightly fuzzy. For a picture this old, it is in excellent condition. Given the style of dress, I assume it to be from the thirties or forties. It could be a picnic, a family outing, a Sunday Easter celebration perhaps. Though something confuses me, and the feeling leaves me unsure.
In the image everyone is smiling. All ages are represented, and everyone seems to be having a wonderful time. The little girl who can barely contain her smile is speaking to an older man. She is no more than ten. I notice the girl is pointing to something up in the large oak tree. Showing the older man what she is clearly fascinated with. He’s smiling too, having been permitted to share in her secret.
As I look closer at the image, and the mans figure comes into full view, it takes a few seconds to process. I shudder at the stark and visceral image, and I fight the reflexive revulsion that rises. Attempting to cast the image out of my minds lens is futile. Because what the little girl was smiling at deep in the tree, was the carcass of a man. A dead, black man, hanging from the tree, hands hog tied behind his back, a blindfold covering his eyes. The deep gashes on the flesh of his back are still fresh, likely the result of being whipped prior to his demise at the end of a noose.
Though it is a central narrative in American history, this is the first picture I have seen, much less held, of a black man lynched and hanging from a tree. With smiling white people gathered around, clearly thrilled with their catch, as the morbid display that was the culmination of last nights ride hangs motionless above the heads of the good people of Little Town, Anywhere America.
Setting the image back on the table that is covered with a deep red cloth, I turn away from the other macabre effects sharing space with the picture. Whips, a cattle branding iron, hoods sewn from pigs cloth, are all too obviously prominent on the table. Made much more prominent is the voice coming from an unseen recorder, as it intones names. A short pause between the name and the manner of death.
“Raped, sodomized, set on fire”.
The voice continues. It doesn’t stop once or repeat a name during the full twenty minutes we are in the room.
The most effective result from this display is both powerfully and cruelly clever. Though I have to wonder if it was consciously intended. As we wait for the pre timed door to open at the other end of the room, the tension is palpable and toxic. Eyes cast down, hands shuffling, we are the people who could have, and most likely would have been, at that Sunday picnic fifty years ago. Laughing, relaxing, enjoying a feast, pointing to the catch in the tree as we reach for seconds. Today, we are literally itching to leave that room. Because away from that room we are safe.
The reality is close, awkward. But it also coolly and artfully abstracted. Discussion outside the room is natural, warranted even, we tell ourselves.
“A dark, dark part of history.”
“What in God’s name were people thinking?”
Standing outside that room, I silently wonder if those phrases are as viciously offensive to others as they are sounding to me. The fact that question is a new one for me, is far more troubling than the question itself.
Everyone of us, every white face that leaves that room, has over time, and with silent mentoring from those that have gone before us, become adept at a specific positioning. One that exists just safely to the side of an exacting intersection; one consisting of historical atrocity and a collective, moral agency yet to be claimed. Scanning the faces that have left the room it is clear; few if any of us have made the claim. David and I move to the front door quickly.
When the exhibit at The Museum Of Tolerance is over, I excuse myself to the restroom, and I will always remember being shamefully conscious of my relief over the lack of a mirror.
That day in 2002 was the very shaky beginning of a long and most uncomfortable process of accounting and reckoning. Complicated would not begin to describe how to integrate a history that I share, with a present that I control and must be accountable for. It is a task that is never ending, and one I am required to take my part in. That is also not by any means to say it is near completion. The past cannot change, and I am aware this journey is often beset with the self righteous cry of my fellow white skinned citizen. A never ending silent refrain, the non reference to a shared history we painfully contort around. When and if we speak of it, the terms are always self referential, carefully and specifically chosen to highlight our benevolence.
“But it wasn’t me that did those things.”
“I can’t change the past.”
I’m sure the man in the tree would understand. It wasn’t you. I’m sure he would understand the abstraction, the concerned tones, the reflexive shaking of the head, the nods, and the appropriately held pauses. I’m sure he thanks you for the glib, tacit support you give to the cause. Before retreating into a white existence in which you are free to luxuriously massage yourself endlessly and forcefully with sharp admonishments of stupid, angry white people in silly, white hoods. Those people. Certainly all of the white faces at your dinner table would agree. These are the people who say:
“I don’t see color, I’ve transcended that.”
“ It doesn’t matter what color a person is. For all I care they could be red, yellow, blue or purple!”
The full support and warm smiles from the other non accountable around your table are potent narcotics. Because once again, you are wrapped in the lazy, hazy cape of unspoken denial. Made by the name brand that is the current rage.
White Liberal Progressive.
And once again, an intersection of historical atrocity and a yet to be claimed personal agency takes place outside your front door. As it always does, with the non accountable positioned safely out of clear direction. Their specific stance held to avoid the trajectory that occurs thousands of times a day in this place we call land of the free, home of the brave. In Little Town, Anywhere America. Where “everybody has a shot at the American Dream!”
Since that day in 2002, I have loudly and with full awareness claimed my personal, moral agency. In doing so, I have also deemed myself newly accountable. Accountable to the burden that is my ethnic history as a white person who exists in a North America that is anything but equal. Accountable to the reality of an uneven playing field, and the reality of my specific positioning on that field by virtue of the current social order. That is to say, my behavior now and forward must always be conscious and purposely thoughtful. It must also be open and accepting of critique. Most importantly, newly accountable means that my participation as an ally for racial justice is not one with a completion date. It must be both a lived, and when required, an actionable reality.
In closing I ask you to consider a direct, yet not at all simple question. As a white person in a 2015 North America, how do you reconcile our collective, historical atrocity and your own personal, moral agency?