Lynchings were often public events. Folks gathered from neighboring towns and counties. They traveled on horseback and foot. These events were often photographed, and the photos were later sold on postcards.
In this photo, a crowd looks back at a photographer, Lawrence Beitler, on August 7, 1930 in Marion, Indiana, as two drooping, beaten black bodies hang in front of them. Notice the young couple on the left of the photo, and the man towards the center who is pointing toward the bodies. I wonder what motivated him to raise his hand toward the dead men. Peer closely into the center of the photo and notice the woman wearing a fur coat. An uncommon wardrobe choice for the heat of summer.
What you can’t see in this photo is James Cameron. A teenager who was badly beaten and sitting near the dead men. This photograph sparked several poems. I am sharing one of those poems in today’s post. It’s titled: “The Crowd Looks Back”
Today, people don’t dress up attend lynchings. But thousands of Americans are witnessing black people be killed in front of their very eyes via social media and news outlets. I have heard it be refer to as “murder porn.”
We often discuss what happens to the victims of such incidents and their families. But, what happens to the crowd who views lynchings? What motivates onlookers? Once you have seen a lynching, what responsibility, if any, do you have? When we view view death as a community, where does our focus land?
Drop me a comment, and let me know what you think.
In the 1800s and 1900s, lynching were public demonstrations. It was not uncommon for people to travel by foot, by wagon or by train to view a lynching. Photographers were there to take photos. Some viewers brought picnic baskets. Others collected mementos in the form of body parts of the lynched victims.
Much like today, Americans viewed black men and women be killed in front of their very eyes. The media heralded the stories, but little was done about it. Many of the witnesses considered the lynchings, often conducted by vigilantes, to be acts of justice. My poem “Justice on Display” ponders this notion.
You can listen the poem here.
I invite you to listen to the poem a couple of times, reflect on its content and then answer the questions linked below. You can journal your answers privately or use them as conversation starters with your family and friends. Answer as few or as many of the questions as you would like.
As a child, I was an avid reader and a writer. I worked at my local newspaper when I was in high school. I attended a journalism camp for minority writers held at the University of Alabama, and my decision to become a newspaper reporter was solidified. I was an editor for my college newspaper and covered the educational system as a reporter in middle Tennessee. When the recession hit in 2008, the newspaper industry took a dive, and I moved to the Midwest to study creative writing in a graduate program.
My first semester there I encountered an image that has haunted me for nearly a decade. It was a photograph of a black man being lynched amongst a crowd of white onlookers. I was fascinated and grieved at the same time. I was drawn to the project for unknown reasons.
I have been researching and writing poems about lynching since then. The project has taken years and is still incomplete. It’s gruesome and exhausting work. Viewing the photos of dead women and men causes me to weep.
As I have worked on the project, I have read recent reports of black folk killed in the hands of law enforcement officers. I hadn’t felt compelled to write about them until now. I foresaw a connection between the lynchings of the 1800s and the killings of the 2000s. But, I wasn’t sure what the connection was.
Now, with the murder of George Floyd that connection is clearer.
One of my favorite quotes about writing is from Edward Bulwer-Lytton. In the 1830s, he proclaimed that “the pen is mightier than the sword.” And I have found this to be true. I am not called to political office, but I am called to the pen. I am not called to being an activist, but I am called to the pen. I am not called to Hollywood, but I am called to the pen.
My plan was to release an audio book of the poems in 2021. I had ideas of creating a curriculum around the book that could be used in high schools to aid teachers in conversations with their students about race, history and justice. In September, I planned to debut the poems in a theatrical production and hold a talkback with thought leaders. I even planned to create handouts or booklets listing strategies to pave the road for cultural progression.
I haven’t discarded those plans. But I am shifting them. I am sharing these poems now. In hopes that my pen will be mightier than the sword and mightier than bullets.
Because we live in the Information Age we are inundated with information to the point that it can leave you overwhelmed, exhaustion and perplexed, I will share the poems in segments so that you can digest them. I may offer commentary or thoughts for you to ponder. Occasionally, I will give action steps.
More than a call to do, this is a clarion call to be. Be human. Experience your humanity.
Toddlers are taught about their five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. (Some propose that we have more than five. But I want to keep this simple.) As children we are taught and encouraged to be in tune with our humanity by way of our senses. I want to encourage us to return to that.
We must see each other.
We must hear each other.
We must smell the stench of racial hatred and be disgusted by it.
We must taste our own spit tainted with pride and prejudice.
And we must touch each other. We must feel each other’s pain.
So this project is an invitation for you to be a human. Not an activist. Not an ally. Not an avenger, but a human. I sincerely believe that we have lost some of our five senses, and that if we are ever going to racially reconcile as a nation, we must regain our sensory functions. We must be human beings, fully and completely.
Let’s embark on this journey together, no matter how uncomfortable or pain it will be. Let us see again. Let us hear again. Let us smell again. Let us taste again. Let us touch again. And some for the first time. Let us be. Humans who care and love other humans.