There are atrocities so profound that we can’t make sense of them in any other way than art. Our minds refuse to absorb them, because they are atrocities perpetrated on one person, or people, against another. That’s how I feel when I see exhibits about lynching; that we can only process them in our minds by honoring the victims, in ways that are so profoundly common to us all.
There is the harsh, brutal reality of it; the crowds, the mobs, the witch hunt and power dynamics of it. We cannot deny that. This was the in-your-face uncensored facts put onto postcards. Pictures taken at a mobbed lynching in the South. The mood of the crowd triumphant, as if this were a sport.
Monsters. Animals. People that may still be among us.
The first lynching exhibit I saw was at Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. A few years ago, they’d hosted “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America.” My then-husband and I were curious enough to attend, but were stunned by the brutality of the images we saw.
I wandered the room looking at picture after picture of lynchings. Some victims were named. Others weren’t even noteworthy. People sent postcards with pictures of hanging bodies to their friends or families. As though this had been an event to share with the people back home.
Easier to bear was the current exhibit at the Rosa Parks Museum. Here was a temporary art installment of white shirts stained with blood, dirt, and burn marks along with a handwritten name tag hanging from the sleeve. Though these shirts were fabricated to show the stain of lynching, it was a powerful representation of what it would be like if we had actually collected the shirts of those victims. There was also a quilt. Another exhibition of textiles made in honor and remembrance of those named and unnamed victims.
And then there was the dirt. Jar after jar of it housed in a room at the Equal Justice Initiative offices. All different colors from all over the state of Alabama. You’d never guess how different the soil would be — how widespread these lynchings were. To me, each jar represented the handful of soil that would strike the coffin, if there was one. The body, if the body were at least buried. Each jar was so different. And again, the name, place and date of the lynching inscribed on the jars. Some unknown. Just another lynching. Art letting us see the breadth of what happened. How else could we take it all in and try to comprehend it?
Next summer comes the lynching memorial. It is being built in Montgomery, Alabama and may be the hardest hitting of all. And arguably, the most necessary. In this memorial, a block with the name and date of a victim will hang in a memorial site. All 4,000 blocks. We can walk among them, and honor them. Remember them. Make sure that there are no more. Because townspeople and government officials may have turned a blind eye to them, but we won’t.
“Monsters. Animals. People that may still be among us.” This is what scares me the most, Juliann— the thin edge between civilization and savagery. Powerful post. –Curt
Thanks, Curt. I cannot imagine watching such a heinous crime being committed and treating it like sport. The postcards, especially, stunned me.
Julie — strong article on such a hard topic, thank you. It is so important for this country to make memorials, to give witness to what happened, so that we ALWAYS remember this brutality, and hopefully steer away from repetition.
Thanks, Ann. Yes — an important reminder and piece of history that we need to understand. The way this is expressed through art is so powerful.
This was a hard exhibit to visit-the photographs showing the mindset of the people at the time- but an extremely important one. I was deeply moved and think the art helped capture the horror in a way everyone could understand.
Sobering exhibits, for sure.
Yikes! This sounds itense, but how smart of them to do this kind of thing to make people more aware! Thank you for honoring them.
This piece was so excellently written we cannot read it and not be touched and ashamed. All the visuals both in written words and the pictures are hard-hitting and weigh upon our hearts.
Thank you for such a poignant piece.
Thanks, Vancyne. “Touched and ashamed.” Well put.
The hats and the shirts make a very powerful statement without overwhelming the mind with gruesome photos. I spent a few weeks in Alabama last year and would welcome a return trip to see the new memorial.
I wish I were the kind of artist who could create something so powerful with ordinary objects. As you said, it is very effective.
These places are heartbreaking to visit but if we don’t learn from history we’re doomed to repeat it. It’s important to acknowledge atrocities instead of sweeping them under the rug.
Absolutely, Jen. We can’t stay silent and turn a blind eye. It’s one of the commendable things I discovered about Montgomery; their willingness to own their ugly history as well as the progress they’ve made.
Powerful post Juliann. And your fear isn’t misplaced. The monsters ARE among us. Lynchings by vigilante groups calling themselves ‘cow protectors’ have been on the rise here ever since our new government took office in 2014 and decided to enforce an existing ban on cow slaughter. These aren’t animal welfare activists by any stretch of course. More like paid goons emboldened by anti secular policies, and their victims are almost always poor muslims. You will not believe how many educated supporters of the ruling party, even our own ‘friends’, turn a blind eye and how deep is the chasm that divides our society right down the middle. Memorials, I am afraid, do not necessarily discourage repetition. Or perhaps it is that not enough people visit these memorials. The world desperately needs more travellers.
How scary, Madhu! I love your thought that more world travellers could help eradicate some of this. I had not heard about the “cow protectors.” I’m stunned and saddened all over again by hatred. My next post will focus on a group that runs a Hatewatch.
Look forward to reading it.
Wow these are some powerful exhibits. I’ve been to one museum before that had a similar effect on me – the Museo Casa de la Memoria in Medellin, Colombia. They had a room that displayed all the victims of the drug cartel violence in the 80s and 90s in a super powerful way – family photos that slowly faded out the person who had been killed. It definitely brought tears to my eyes. I can imagine this must have spurred emotions.
I read about that on your blog, Susan. Definitely looked powerful. You know if I ever get to Colombia, I’ll be sure to check that out.
Very well written Juliann. The absolute conviction one feels when following a fervent crowd is terrifying.What’s even scarier is when you realize that, at certain times in your life, you were part of that crowd. Luckily, most mobs don’t end in lynching these days but it’s scary to watch rational thought melt into public conformation.
Wow. I’ve been trying to figure out what to write here because this is such a powerful and well-written post. All I can say is that I’m so glad you chose to share your experience with us, so that others will also be affected and remember and honor those whose lives were lost. Thanks, Juliann.
This is such a powerful post, Juliann. I couldn’t imagine all the strong emotions that hit you while you walked through the exhibit. We need to remember the victims, honor them, and not let the history repeat.
Thanks, Cat. It was very emotional; one of those places where I felt ashamed of something that I wasn’t even a part of, but want to apologize for anyway.
A difficult subject very well dealt with Juliann. And, as a couple of your commenters have said, the lynch mob mentality isn’t buried very deep either. We’ve seen in the very recent past in Europe how savagery can quickly take hold when ethnic hatred is allowed to follow its primitive course.
It’s startling to hear how widespread hatred is, Roy. It’s not something I associate with much of Europe.
We must all learn from history and not to repeat those mistakes! Very powerful art display there indeed.
I can’t imagine how hard this was to visit but that’s exactly why it’s so important as well. We only evolve by remembering what has happened – forgetting doesn’t do anyone any favors. Thanks for writing about something so important.
Thanks, Ashley. It is hard to subject yourself to reminders of what horrors people perpetrated on each other. So incredibly sad.
Monsters are indeed among us even today. It may not be as bad but I feel like the mentality is still there. It must be rough walking through this and seeing all the photographs, names, cloths… I’m not sure if I can handle my emotions at an exhibit like this