Monday, June 13, 2005

Lynching Apology: Better a Century Late than Never?

Today, the United States Senate apologized formally for decades where it blocked any progress in battling the widespread use of lynchings -- racially motivated hangings -- in the southern states and elsewhere in the U.S.

Peculiar to the United States

What is it exactly the Senators are apologizing for? According to Tuskegee University records, 4,743 people were murdered in mob-related acts between 1882 and 1968. The largest segment, 3,446 victims, was made up of blacks. (The fact that any lynchings had to do with whites can be seen best when studying the history of vigilante movements in the western U. S.; my own home state of Montana had one of the more celebrated vigilante groups during that era.) Lynchings peaked in 1892 at 230, but contrary to what one might expect historically, they were commonplace into the 1930s. In 1935 alone, 20 lynchings were reported. And it should be said that during the post-civil war reconstruction era, the racial identity of those hung was increasingly black.

Along with the Tuskegee Institute, the Chicago Tribune and the NAACP kept records, but these records were often incomplete and about something that wasn't easy to track; victims weren't around to tell the tale and perpetrators often didn't even know why their victim was being sacrificed. "Rape of a white woman" was the usual charge, if in fact a pretext was needed.

During this same time, nearly 200 anti-lynching bills came before Congress. Seven presidents between 1890 and 1952 attempted to push anti-lynching legislation. Only three of those bills made it through the House, and none through the Senate. The reason? Southern-led filibusters.

Some years ago, I read a little book called 100 Years of Lynchings. Basically the book is little more than news clippings of specific lychings over a period covering the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. It, like all the other reading I've done in black history, left me trembling with horror. Not horror at evil -- too easy a role for a white man to play when discussing race in America -- but horror at whiteness. The book is the stuff of nightmares.

The story that springs to mind from that little book is one where the victim's few words echo every victim of racial violence throughout history: "C'mon, don't give me a crooked deal just because I'm black." But of course, that is what he got. Then there was the black janitor, flung to his death over a bridge rail by well-brought up white college kids. He had, it was alleged, molested a white woman.

No, the deeper a white man such as myself goes into black history, the more a revulsion comes boiling up from the insides, a horror of this thing called "whiteness" that is so profound as to be self-threatening. I am threatened because my idea of myself, of those like me, is threatened. And I want so badly to be able to forget what I read, what I heard, what I now know.

It can be done, of course. Forgetting one's capacity for evil is done every day. The addict who has been clean for a month forgets they ever had a drinking or drug or lust problem. The sinner who has been saved forgets that he was so desperately lost in his personal hell. Our self-fabricated holiness, our righteousness made of filthy rags, comes undone in the faces of the Other's anguish.

There are no short cuts, no easy fixes, to this racial hell. In fact, in many ways, there are no fixes at all. One can't go back and repair things that have been burned to the ground. Even the foundations are gone. One has to start over, and only God knows where that begins.

So what of today's Senate apology? It is almost entirely a symbolic gesture, muted and hollow due to no reparative action being connected with it. But at least it is an admission of guilt. And that, these days in Washington, is a pretty rare thing.

Odds and Ends on Lynching

The above ramble is about all I have in my emotional tank re this subject; at least for today. It is truly the stuff of my personal nightmare world, though... here are some odds and ends someone may find interesting.

Billie Holliday, that tragic blues singer, offered the most potent popular blow against lynchings ever with her signature tune, "Strange Fruit":

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

(The song is available online in part, featured in the excellent PBS documentary "Strange Fruit.")

W. E. B. Dubois, writer (The Souls of Black Folk, 1903), social conscience, and eventual American outcast, was radicalized in an instant by his encounter with a lynching. Unfortunately, I'm unable to find a version of the story online, and mistrust my own memory. My unreliable shorthand version is as follows: He was a professor at a small school in the south, and walked by a store. In the window was the corpse of a black man who'd been lynched. And suddenly Dubois realized that race had nothing to do with blackness, but rather with whiteness. It was a white problem. That was about as radical an idea as he could have possibly come up with back then!

'Nuff for now.


David said...

Not sure I agree with the "horror at whiteness" thing (although i realize it's what you were feeling - very valid).

For me, I can't claim horror at whiteness - I'm white, and have african american friends, work-mates, and relatives... no bias here. I feel horror - horror that someone could be so completely deceived.

JDB said...

You call the gesture, muted and hollow due to no reparative action being connected with it.

It seems to me that no reparative gesture could even begin to help and would only be a further insult, that we can buy innocense back.

As to my white self, I feel no specific horror at whiteness. Instead I feel horror at what humans do, and more specifically what I know I could do without the Lord to give me strength, grace, and restraint.