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At the heart of the “National Memorial for Peace and Justice” (Lynching memorial) is a vast collection of giant, rusty metal, rectangular pillars, hanging tightly together like a neatly planned and well-looked-after orchard.
Etched in each are the names of (known) lynching victims by date.
The pillars are hung so cleverly that one has to experience this artistic installation in person.
Nonetheless, the subject of white terrorism in the deep south is heavy,
Which is perhaps why Guests are invited to visit the nearby museum before the Memorial.
One needs time to prepare.
Naturally, sandwiched between enslavement and mass incarceration exhibits,
The museum also has an array of material on lynching.
This included a giant mural of jars surrounded by videos, infographic murals, maps and
An interactive register of every known lynching by county, date, state, and name.
I’m still stuck on the mural of snapshots of actual lynching advertisements, and
Pictures of actual news reports of victims’ final words.
These were the actual final words of folks etched forever in these hanging, rusty pillars.
Ostensibly, written by war correspondents.
Standing in awe of the museum’s wall of jars, I chatted with a tall Black man about my age.
He’d traveled here from a neighboring state with his teen son to, as he said,
“See how this stuff we go through today ain’t new.”
I recounted to him what a young man at the EJI memorial had showed me a few years ago:
A man’s name who’d been lynched early last century for selling loose cigarettes –
Just like Eric Garner!
Yet, even since then,
Amadou Diallo was shot 19 times in 1999, standing on his own stoop
And while Jayland Walker got 46 bullets this year while fleeing on foot.
Tamir Rice was a little boy.
A little boy playing in the park. But his mere presence terrified a white man.
So he called 9-1-1 and the police showed up and shot Tamir within seconds!
We can watch the tape.
After their own legal work in representing the wrongfully imprisoned for damn near life,
EJI began collecting jars of dirt near every known lynching, and
If invited by local officials, EJI would offer a memorial plaque and ceremony commemorating that community’s recognition of historic injustice(s).
An open field sits next to the suspended pillars, filled with a duplicate of each pillar.
These duplicates sit, having yet to be collected and properly dedicated by each county.
These communities are denied healing, and we know wounds fester.
The field of lame duplicates effectively memorializes the festering denial in our body politic.
There are far too many unrecorded victims and versions of white mob violence, and intimidation, not just barbarous torture and heinous murder.
We do have to wonder how else this rich history has stayed in our collective memories.
Too many Black families were too traumatized to talk and didn’t want to pass it to their kids.
We know many fled after any minor incursion,
Just as someone had advised Emmet Till to do,
And there’s no accounting for them and the victims’ families who fled and
Even hid or discarded any news clippings they’d seen of the events.
Yet, whites must have kept record.
Did whites collect the newspaper ads or reports of a lynching they’d attended or hoped to?
They made and sold lynching postcards, curios, and other odd lynching souvenirs.
Where are the avid collectors?
Plus, apparently, terrorists don’t just kidnap and hang someone to death,
So what did they do with all the ears, noses, fingers, and genitals they cut off?
Or eyes they plucked out?
Or scalps they shaved?
Many victims pass out from the immense pain of being tortured and burned alive, but still
I doubt all those pieces and parts got thrown in the fire, because, of course,
Plenty of pictures show entire white families there to celebrate the lynching like (a) V-day.
And in many ways, it was, and
The whites looked as if they would’ve wanted to remember.
Looks can be deceiving, but the ways whites were also bullied into compliance is real.
Still, my mother swears that some white families’ heirlooms must include
Prized, preserved pieces of Nat Turner.
Ooh, wouldn’t that be a treasure that would be.
Plus, given the spate and state of anti-Black policing and violence,
Our democracy, nay, our Constitution itself, is as rusty as these pillars.
The pillars resting in the field remind us not only the work left to do, but also, it’s urgency.
How many more pillars may we still need?
How many amendments
did will freedom take?
It goes to show how great thou art now!
In September 2021, I visited the newly expanded Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, in my maternal grandparents’ hometown, Montgomery, Alabama. I was struck by the range of artifacts used to chronicle each era. Consider these1854 slave market advertisements from the Montgomery Advertiser and Gazette – still the local newspaper!
Catalog of Negroes, mules, carts, wagons and Co., to be sold in Montgomery. Headlines included: Wenches and bucks, quality Negroes for sale.
Nancy – about 26, fieldhand, cannot recommend her particularly, complains of indisposition, but probably a proper master might cure her.
Ben – A strong and hearty man, about 30 years old, an excellent field hand, and a remarkably handy boy, in any use, being usually quick and intelligent; a No. 1 Negro.
Suckey, A remarkably intelligent Negro girl about 15 years of age, understands General house work well for her age; can sew tolerably, and is a most excellent nurse and attendant for children; has remarkable strength of constitution, and never known to have been complaining even for a moment; a pretty good field hand, and would make an excellent one.
Allison – about 15, fine body and house servant, carriage driver and Ostler, honest, steady, handy, healthy, smart, intelligent, and in all respects a choice and desirable boy.
Mary Jane – about 11.
Martha – about 10.
Louisa – about 7.
Old George – as faithful and honest an old African as ever lived.
His wife Judy, the same sort of character.
Henrietta – about 24… First-rate cotton picker.
One of the humans being trafficked recounted:
“To test the soundness of a male or female slave… They are handled in the grossest manner, and inspected with… disgusting minuteness… in the auction room where the dealer is left alone with the ‘chattels’ offered… God has recorded the wickedness that is done there, and punishment will assuredly fall upon the guilty.” -J. Brown.
The ebb and flow of freedom.
Each exhibit in the ‘Enslavement to Mass Incarceration’ museum takes visitors seamlessly through the Atlantic slave trade, past Jim and Jane Crow segregation, to a recorded face-to-face visit with a real-life, modern-day inmate. As you enter what seems like the final hall, you are confronted with an array of individual seats at a glass window/screen projecting an inmate calmly sitting, waiting. Like a real prison visit, there’s a telephone, which once lifted, the prisoner does the same, introduces themselves, and recounts their story. History confronts you in the present: The confederacy surrendered on April 9, 1865. By 1898, 73% of state revenue came from convict leasing. Now?
One explicit goal of the EJI project, reflected and reinscribed in the exhibits’ descriptions, is a shift in language from slavery and slaves to human trafficking and enslavement. Surely, one can feel the sublingual, subliminal shift from victimology to responsibility, and that implies accountability. To be clear, the entire economy centered around usurping land, driving-out or exterminating the indigenous people, human trafficking and slave labor, shredding the natural environment into farmland to produce cotton, cane and tobacco, manufacturing a range of commodities from these raw materials, trading around the world. Who got rich? Whose labor was exploited?
Who is accountable for giving birth to Jim Crow, if slavery died with ole Abe Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation? Who is accountable for cultivating chronic poverty and voter intimidation, if we’d exterminated white lynch mobs through the Civil Rights codes of the sixties? Who indeed is responsible for mass incarceration? The exhibits challenge language that focuses on the victim and remains hush about the status quo, masking the ensuing abuse of power needed for its maintenance, especially hidden from abusers who may themselves be exploited by the myth of meritocracy.
As a side note, perhaps people will not actually be able to reckon with this cognitive dissonance of heroic CONfederate generals and their cause to uphold each state’s right to let white men traffic and enslave Blacks. I’d truly like to see public statues of say, the valiant General Lee, standing next to two or three statues of enslaved people, and a few statues of the white people charged with the quotidian physical labor of enslavement, e.g., driving labor (whip crackers), capturing and punishing escapees (slave catchers, the original law-enforcement force), breaking in new arrivals (torture), breeding ((gang)rape), and general humiliation throughout these duties (sadomasochism). Perhaps the museum just needs to add another exhibit with busts of them.
With stark population stats posted big and bold as visitors transition from room to room, the exhibits chronologically shift through significant eras. Today in the prison industrial complex there are 8 million incarcerated. 10 million were segregated under Jim and Jane Crow until the Civil Rights movement. 9 million terrorized by lynching, accelerating the erosion of Reconstruction. The nation was born and raised with 12 million kidnapped and enslaved Africans. Dear reader, right now I ask, what precisely has our nation done to upend caste?
In the middle of the so-called Iraq war, I remember encountering a group of soldiers headed to the battlefield from the Atlanta airport. I was heading back to my cushy, comfy apartment in New Delhi, to continue my doctoral fieldwork. I had visited my family in Alabama and Georgia for as long as I wanted, and so was comfortably heading back to my normal life. Lines of soldiers in uniform snaked all around the airport.
They were everywhere. From check-in, through security, to the lounges, especially where they pacify our waiting times with crowds of sofas. No matter where we went, no matter what we did – waiting, wandering, shaving or brushing our teeth in the bathroom, loitering, or just tax-free window shopping – we were surrounded by America’s finest, cleanest, most highly trained youth. What’s more, one easily noticed that they were far more black and brown people amongst the soldiers than the civilians hovering around. More still, it was clear from the news that these soldiers were only there – armed and ready – because ‘we’ were sending them directly to the battlefield. The same shield on their uniforms was the very same shield on the passport I was using to effortlessly cross all these borders; supposedly they were defending me, too.
“Baby come back! Any kind of fool can see…” -Player, 1977.
I love landing in the Atlanta airport when coming home from abroad. Atlanta is a chocolate city, and one sees that right from the opening of the airplane doors. There are all sorts of regular Black people doing every sort of job, and so I get the Black-head-nod at least twenty times before I reach my luggage. I’m always feeling myself in the ATL.
Of course, like any day at any airport around the world, there are tons of screens floating from the ceilings, muted with subtitles, positioned conveniently around the masses of sofas meant to pacify the masses of passengers’ long waits. The screens show every news channel, and every news channel steadily feeds us a minute-by-minute update of the war. So of course, as a passenger headed east from America to India, I would inevitably have a layover either in Europe or the Middle East, again comfortably cruising past the battlefield.
Only a few years earlier, I had visited my cousins in Germany who were military medics receiving soldiers from the battlefield, making their way home. I knew that everywhere I was going, every nation over which we flew, was entangled in the battle these young people standing before me were about to face.
“Kein Blut für Öl” (no blood for oil!)
In true Southern charm, I had to say something. You just don’t spend that much time physically near other people and not acknowledge their presence. It’s rude to ignore people, which I only point out because I realize this is not the case everywhere, even in our own country. Acknowledging strangers may therefore seem strange to you, dear reader. Besides, how rude would it be to avert one’s eyes from this reality. Bon voyage!
There were soldiers in long lines snaking around the whole airport. So, by the time you’ve reached your gate, you’ve had a long time to ponder the youths’ circumstances, one by one. Waiting there, they see you. You see them, too, and you want them to know that they are seen, not averted or ignored simply because this was all very uncomfortable.
What could I say to any of them, that would not reveal my heartbreak, which is certainly something these people did not need to see. Nor did I need to share my complete dissent from the dominant WMD narrative being spun by the very government sending them into battle. As many marches and protests as I had taken part of in the buildup to this war, I may have even had an anti-war sticker plastered across my backpack. It’s a shame, and THAT war is filled with war crimes.
So: “Y’all take care,” and, “Y’all come back,” were all I could mutter behind my grin-n-tears, what Fela called suff’rin’ and smilin’. War is not the answer.
Getting closer to 30 has been really difficult. I had set goals for myself and I have not accomplished most of them.
I thought I had everything all planned out and I knew what I wanted. However, life comes at you fast. I honestly wonder how our parents made this look so easy.
The pandemic has also knocked us back a couple of years. Instead of focussing on goals and thinking about the future; we are simply trying our hardest to stay sane and survive each day. Remembering to breathe became the new main task. Making our mental health a priority has become the most important thing.
Trying to balance ‘living in the moment’ and thinking about the future is hard. My plans have changed so much over the last couple of years. I have more questions than answers. But I’m slowly learning not every question has to be answered straightaway.
The pressure I feel being a first generation immigrant is enormous. I believe that every generation has to show a level of socioeconomic improvement. Finding a way to achieve this, whilst in a foreign land is extremely overwhelming. You are constantly reminded close to each day that you are an outsider and you do not belong here.
Nonetheless, my mother did not work two jobs and not have any days off for me not to make it. This has always been my driving force. My mom always tells me I am being too hard on myself. She had the support from her relatives when she was home in our home country (Zimbabwe) and I don’t have the same luxury, as such I shouldn’t penalise myself for not achieving everything I want to achieve… yet. (The key word is ‘yet’). Just because it has not happened yet doesn’t mean it will not happen in the future. Delay does not mean denial.
Facing career challenges based on your race is a hard pill to swallow. Not knowing who to turn to for advice is even more frustrating. I used to think all women regardless of race would empathise and they would want to help. As we all have one struggle in common; being a woman. At least that should unify us… (so you would think). However, I have realised at times your level of ambition can be deemed as a threat. The same people might have experienced a glass ceiling can be the very same ones who add to your oppression because you are seen as ‘competition’. One of my mentors recently told me to relax in relation to my job searching as all institutions are not used to “aggressive job searches”. I find it pretty funny that the term “aggressive” will always be the main word used to describe Black people. How can a job search ever be aggressive?! Unless I’m standing outside your office threatening you to give me a job then yes, that’s aggressive. However, sending an email reminding a company to send me the new job specification they stated over the phone is not aggressive. In that moment, I knew she is an enemy of my progress.
I used to calculate my career progression based on if I have moved up to a certain level or my pay grade has increased. But I am starting to learn the skills I have acquired over the years are far more valuable. My confidence has grown incredibly. I have found my voice. That is something that cannot be taken from me. I am proud of my level of courage and perseverance. These are qualities not a lot of people have.
I am excited to see what 30 has in store for me. I have learnt so much. But there are a lot of skills I look forward to gaining in the upcoming years. I am slowly learning not to be so hard on myself.
Note to self – do not forget who you are… You are destined for greatness. Everything you want is coming. Do not compare your journey to others. Even if others are not willing to help you; there is always a way forward. Go back to the drawing board and restrategise. No one owes you anything. So do not expect anything from anyone.
“Remember diamonds are created under pressure so hold on, it will be your time to shine soon.” – Sope Agbelisi
This poem comes inspired from the recent UCU strikes, and also the underpinning arguements of Complaint by Sara Ahmed. The institution protects itself, while removing those who complain (or in many cases, they remove themselves). It is also inspired by ‘Testimony’ by Irish poet Seamus Heaney.
As higher education burns,
they blame white lecturers who picket,
and the Black and Brown lecturers
no longer willing to be ‘paid in exposure’
to the hull of slave ships. Colonialism’s hot mouth
at the nucleus of HE’s epistemes,
so senior leaders blame lecturers
for neglect. Meanwhile, the upper echelons
play Monopoly with staff pay checks
students left to grieve assignment
work revolving around conveyer belts
like undead corpses between indenture and slavery
it’s a Tuesday morning
a fever of claret runs riot
across picketing lines
turn cloaks to justice and equality,
there’s just ice behind the scab
where hearts used to beat. Back in the 80s,
gay and lesbian activists stood in solidarity
with the miners; and Arthur Scargill
and co scurried to Jayaben Desai at Grunwick
from the main road, you can still hear the screams
of comradery, and ‘we see yous’ …
yet behind picket tea and biscuits,
there are teary smiles –
death behind the bags,
and behind the pyre …
smoke could be seen for miles.
In Honour of my two teachers’ passing (seen together here). Rest In Power, bell hooks (d. 15/12/21) and Thich Nhat Hanh (d. 22/01/22).
If we could empathize with all life, we…
… wouldn’t treat all animals as either food or fodder.
… wouldn’t develop nuclear technology into bombs.
…would never show an interest in making so many guns and ways of destroying life.
…would more genuinely aim to achieve mutual understanding between individuals.
…wouldn’t have so much intergenerational trauma within families, communities, nations.
…would be more neighborly in all our affairs.
…wouldn’t treat trade like a sport, a winner-takes-all competition over natural resources.
…would harness the power of the sun for it shines on all life collectively.
…would cultivate care, and be kinder as a general rule.
… would teach kindness in school, a required class on every campus.
…would not build entire ideologies, systems of government, religions, arts, and culture around patriarchy.
… would not be reduced to binaries, not just in gender, but ‘black or white’ in our overall thinking, because that’s where it came from: A false yet powerful and enduring dichotomy.
Binary thinking produced gender binaries, not the other way around. Knowing this is key to its undoing. Please know that capitalism produced racism, and greed crafted classism. A2 + B2 = C2, still. Racism is exponentially untamed greed; and patriarchy an inferiority complex run rampant and amok. Such cultures of greed can’t be conquered by competition; greed can’t be beat! We need a new dimension.
If we could empathize with all life, we would aspire to be far more fair.
If we could empathize with all life, we would love more.
Fill in the blank.