Heirlooms and Accessories: Starting Place
In 1930 two young black men were dragged from prison cells and lynched in Marion, Indiana in response to false accusations. A third young man narrowly escaped the violent mob, he was 16 years old. The horrific scene was captured by a local photographer in a picture that went viral, for its day. The image became internationally known as a quintessential representation of the state of race relations in the United States. The image holds a visceral horror of such a violent act, and only increases as the viewer encounters the surrounding crowd. Faces of women and men and children hold calm expressions, void of gravity. As six white theology students seeking to learn from the riches of Black Liberation Theology, we must contend with our place in this crowd of white faces.
Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955) is an American artist that is widely recognized for his work highlighting the black American experience. In a current exhibition of a wide breadth of his work, one piece catches the eye amidst the high contrast and vibrant color schemes of his major works. Along the side wall of the show the viewer is drawn into a triptych of gaudy antiqued lockets against a clean white background. In each locket is the face of a woman. The women are your church neighbor, your great aunt, or your grandmother. There is nothing apparently dramatic or extraordinary about these individuals. They are regular. The viewer who has not quickly moved on from the simplicity of this piece starts to sense the weight that is carried in the depths of the three frames hung side by side. If you take the time to read the small print adhered to the wall on the left you meet the women imaged. They are not posing for a photo with a friend or going about their daily activities like their pleasant faces may suggest. Expand the frame of the picture and you see a crowd of people gathered to watch the beating and hanging of young black men.
Marshall titled this piece Heirlooms and Accessories.
These women, whose names we never learn, did not organize the mob. They did not beat the young men. Perhaps they did not believe the men should be hanged. But they watched. Their silence spoke a word of affirmation to a system that tramples human lives for the cause of white supremacy and their own comfort. Their silence makes them accessories to murder. They are normal people that keep silent. It is a part of the fabric of the white culture that we have inherited. We have been handed down the privilege of keeping silent when the injustice is done in our favor. Oppression and violence toward others has worked for our benefit.
As a group of young white folks using our resources to learn from non-dominant voices it is vital that we begin to uncover the heirlooms that have been passed on to us; systems built for our comfort at the cost of grievous injustice. In our ignorance and silence we are hardly different from the casual bystanders of the 1930 lynching. We are active in the propagation of a culture of oppression, one that flows into dangerous new forms. We are accessories to murder until we stand in opposition to the system of injustice that we have inherited.
The Heirlooms and Accessories group studying African American Liberation Theology is made up of: Austen Case, Ryan Ciganek, Leah Gleason, Sheree Price, Nicole Ulrey, and Eric Woodward.
See Heirlooms and Accessories by Kerry James Marshall here.
See more of Kerry James Marshall’s work here.