I recently visited the National Museum and Memorial for Peace and Justice – Bryan Stevenson’s masterpiece in Montgomery, Alabama. I went during Thanksgiving, in part, to spiritually and emotionally give thanks to those Black people in America who suffered unspeakable terror and agony. I wanted to be in a place that memorialized them, to thank them personally for maintaining the dignity and humanity of Black people despite the barbarism they were subjected to and upon which contemporary America is built. Even as a child of immigrants, I am a beneficiary of their grace.
Needless to say, the experience is overwhelming. The phases from slavery, through the end of Reconstruction, into Jim Crow and the current mass incarceration is impossible to absorb all at once. The story of America, which we too sing, is at once the substance of the best of human imagination and the worst of human viciousness.
In the Memorial, the first sign you see tells you that it is a sacred place. It is. It is a grand mausoleum to thousands and thousands of Black people – women, men, and children – who were burned and castrated and raped and dissected and lynched by legions of White people over the course of centuries. There are hundreds of rusted iron boxes in the shape of coffins hanging from the roof, one for each county in America where recorded lynchings took place. On each box are the names of Black people who were lynched and the date of their killing.
There are dozens of names etched into the box of Fulton County, Georgia, where I currently live.
As you walk through and under these symbols of America, on the walls are descriptions of what happened to some of the people. Incalculable brutality. As I read and walked and absorbed the experience of Black people being dismembered and burned alive and hung from their necks while mobs of White people gathered with their families to watch as if it were a show, it got to be too much. At a point, I cried.
Each one of the people listed on the rusted coffins marks an end. In the cases where the Mob lynched entire families together, those marked the end of an entire line of people. It struck me that Black American friends of mine, today, whose families have been here for generations, are here by Grace. Their families escaped the Mob. In the Diaspora, my family escaped the Mob too. Through their good fortune and their courage and their revolt and their insistence that we not forget that Black people are distinctly human, we arrive at this moment. We arrive as the community we are – damaged, besieged still, but triumphant and evolving. We are embracing our past, drawing strength from it and learning from it. That is the whole point of memorial.
In the Museum, there is a classic picture of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine. She is one of the nine children who were the first to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. In the picture Elizabeth, who was 15 years old at the time, is walking through the Mob and a group of White girls is captured screaming and yelling at her. The venom and hatred are obvious. The viciousness of one of the White girls is particularly striking.
In the Black world, the Little Rock Nine are lionized. They, and other southern integration soldiers, are revered – Charlayne Hunter-Gault (University of Georgia), James Merideth (University of Mississippi), Autherine Lucy (University of Alabama), Ronald Yancey (Georgia Tech). Their aim was not to be with White people, but rather to access American educational opportunities that should be fair and equal options for everyone. Skin color ought to have nothing to do with education.
Black people my age, however, reflect from time to time on what it must have been like to weather the storm of White racial hatred to go to school. What must it have been like to be spit upon and hit with rocks and to have federal troops protect you so you could get to class? What must it have been like to have instructors that consciously hate you? What must it have been like to reconcile the resistance of the Klan to understanding the phase shift between sinusoidal and cosinusoidal functions? To learn despite, has long been the case for Black people in America, and it remains so.
We experienced, and our own children are experiencing, contemporary versions of this resistance. Our teenage children are currently navigating through schools and systems marked by staggering racial segregation and the resistance of well-spoken White people to fully support the integration of their own children’s educational enclaves.
The battle for educational excellence and the historic challenges and resistance to the achievement of individual Black children, like my own, is a topic in Black households. It is a product of our learning from the sordid American past. It is both a personal and collective engagement with our children forged directly out of the national narrative – out of a history where Black people were lynched for trying to learn.
But. I wonder about the White girl in the picture. What is the topic in her household?
The picture of the Little Rock Nine was taken 1957. Elizabeth Eckford is the same age as my father. The White girl in the picture overflowing with racial venom and hatred is therefore my parents age too. Her children are likely the same age as me and their children the same age as mine. Our families are running in parallel. What has become of the viciousness and animus and inhumanity that defined her and her family story? How does she interact with that same memorial?
Given her obvious hatred, captured forever in that classic photograph, it is not hard to imagine what the conversation was with her parents that evening. She probably alluded to the fact that niggers were coming to contaminate her school. It isn’t a stretch to assert that children, often, though not always, stay close to the ideologies of their parents. Her parents were likely in favor of violently defending segregation. They may have reflected on a time when they themselves witnessed the lynching or beating of a Black person for daring to step out of line and demonstrate their humanity. They may have had a post card commemorating a family picnic at which they watched a Black person being burned to death.
That teenage girl, a product of her time and family, may not have had the personal courage or fortitude to resist the obvious fallacy of her family philosophy. She likely could not see it. Perhaps. Existing in the context of the White American South, she may not have been armed with the analytical tools to critique the system that destroyed her humanity as a child.
For Black people, it seems obvious that she knew. White Southern terrorists knew that their behavior was barbarous. They chose to be inhuman. The hangman and the hanged are both human. It is why people don’t hang sheep. There are too many contradictions in their behavior and rules and patterns for it not to be obvious that White people knew we are human beings. It was their choice to believe and behave as they did.
So what would make the White teenage girl in the picture choose differently? How would her daughter, who is my age, be different? How would she choose to turn her back on the sins of her family story, her heritage, and choose humanity? What framework does she need? Why would she do it? How will she and the thousands of White people who embodied America’s most vile instincts and characteristics, the Mob, confront their past? How will they confront themselves? That confrontation does not involve me, but the Memorial, memorializes them too.
I wrapped myself in the spirit of Black people in the Memorial. I immersed. I opened. I raged. I wept. I strengthened my pride in being a Black man. I doubled down on the purpose and the mission of my work. I gave thanks to Black people I don’t know for suffering and battling in ways that I can’t imagine. I spoke to them. I begged their forgiveness for not doing enough with the privileges they earned for me. I promised to be better, to be more. I was in the company of my people and I was thankful.
But the question remains, what of the White girl? What of her people? If there is to be such a thing as “The American People”, White people have to confront the memorial of themselves.