There are thousands of photographs that capture “man’s inhumanity to man” — a phrase coined by one of my favorite philosophers when seeking a way to describe the Holocaust where Nazi Germany massacred Jews in ways that are simply unimaginable. But one photo that I’ve never been able to forget shows several Black men swinging from good old Southern poplar trees (recall the lyrics from Billie Holiday’s mesmerizing song, “Strange Fruit.”) Meanwhile, just under the trees, white Southern families enjoyed pitchers of lemonade, sweet cakes, friend chicken and other tasty treats.
But it was far from of day of picnicking and celebration for Blacks.
African Americans, including old men, young women and infants barely days old, have indiscriminately been the victims of a “holocaust” of sorts as well — inhumane, vicious acts that have gone on for over 400 years — and continue even today.
And while white America often ignores the deeds undertaken by their own hands and those of their ancestors, Blacks can ill-afford to forget the past. Sure, those memories may be difficult to swallow. They may evoke pain beyond belief. They may make us weary of hearing about or seeing stories and photographs that hark back to the days of slavery. But it’s only when we confront that past and that history that we can finally begin to heal, to allow these centuries-old sores to shed their scabs so we can finally grow, becoming who God intended us to be.
America’s lineage of lynching serves as a gruesome, grisly chapter within the annals of U.S. history. And while it may be easy for some to romanticize the old South, replete with its blooming lilacs and magnolias and fanciful tales of brave “white masters” whose faces now adorn statues of Confederates “fathers,” such fairy tales ignore the other half of the story. During the many decades of lynchings in the U.S., more than 4,000 African Americans died — were murdered, and at the amusement of whites.
That’s why I’m determined to take a road trip this summer with my other half, my two adult children and my two young grandsons bound for Montgomery, Alabama. In that city, essential to the story of the modern civil rights movement, a shiny new museum and memorial recently opened its doors.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice now challenges more than 800 counties to acknowledge the lynchings of Blacks that took place on their soil — soil that still screams with the blood of Blacks killed for no reason other than pure, unadulterated hatred. It’s one way for our country to reclaim the past and reconcile ourselves with it.
These lynchings often took place with little or no warning. They included torture, dismemberment, castration, the splitting open of infants’ heads and other unimaginable acts. What’s more, these murders tended to take place out in the open, so all could see and “enjoy.”
Let’s be clear. Lynchings had nothing to do with justice. They were out and out terrorist acts. And while we cannot erase the past or bring those falsely accused of crimes by racist white folks back to life, perhaps we can finally own up to the evil Americans have perpetrated against other Americans simply because of the color of their skin.
But I wonder, with all of the celebration about making America great again, if some U.S. citizens would rather we turn back the clock to usher in those days of old when some of us were considered, treated and even murdered because in their minds we were “less than human.”
I wonder if returning to those so-called days of greatness seek to resurrect an era of “two” Americas — one white and one Black.