Monday, June 6, 2011

See For Yourself

Andrew Sullivan posted an excellent and moving poem, "Reverse: A Lynching," accompanied by a photo of the Duluth Lynchings. I hadn't heard of this event and so followed the Wikipedia link, and there came across this photo, of the lynching of Henry Smith, used in the Lynching portal:

The imagery is stunning: a sea of Paris Texans come to elevate the dejected only to debase and destroy him. Behind them an indefinite swirl of color, with a particularly bright burst behind the victim, bound and head-down, giving him an especial visual gravity. Written on the platform on which he stands, "Justice," a mockery of the concept.

I always have to stop and absorb such pictures, with their horrid juxtaposition of the dead or dying victims and their killers' ghoulish indifference or glee. Scenes like these grab me because they are so alien to my experience and because they are even now terribly novel. We all supposedly know what a lynching is, but to see it is something else entirely. (A long time ago I wrote something similar regarding public executions.)

Part of what makes such a scene so foreign is a failure of education, but another part is, to be frank, race. A white American simply has no collective memory of mob violence and slavery like a black American does, and so beyond the shock of lynching imagery there is a narrow blindness that settles over considerations of and assumptions about other issues. The ex-slaves were as much of the South as their white former owners, but they are scarce referred to when discussing "Southerners." The Civil War killed 600,000 Americans, but it freed four million.

This makes it easy for otherwise well-meaning people to be taken in by Confederate apologia that whitewashes blacks out of all consideration of the war and its aftermath. Consider this link, posted to Facebook by a friend of mine (my emphasis):

Even after Lincoln’s death, and for twelve years after the war had ended, Reconstruction further proved that the fighting had little to do with slavery. If the North cared primarily about freeing slaves, soldiers would have vacated the South shortly after Lee’s surrender. Instead, there was nation-building in Dixie. Anyone connected to the previous regime or military (essentially all Southern males) could no longer vote, run for office, or exercise any of their constitutional rights without pledging support for the Union. A Southerner was forced to surrender his dignity and vow allegiance to the conquerors who had ravaged his people and his land. Southerners had their right to a representative government suspended indefinitely, their dignity trampled, and over a quarter million of their citizens killed by foreign invaders from the North, then were forced to suck it all up and like it. Not surprisingly, the vanquished South held onto its anger for generations after Appomattox. Even now, in the modern, post-industrial South, being called a Yankee is no compliment. And it has little to do with the Emancipation Proclamation.

It's easy to complain about federal interference in the South when one airbrushes away the evils that flourished in its absence--Jim Crow laws, lynchings, the Ku Klux Klan, Mississippi Appendectomies. Nothing beats education on these matters, but a haunting and revolting image, like the ones the lynchers themselves captured for posterity, are an important start to shaking one out of complacence.

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