James Baldwin looked down at the red clay hills of Georgia and thought “that this earth had acquired its color from the blood that dripped down from the trees.” That lynching is a part of America’s troubled history cannot be overstated and yet it is not often talked about. Still, Billie Holiday sang of its Black bodies in the Southern breeze fruit: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit/ blood on the leaves/ blood at the root/ Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees…”
It’s unspeakable history was captured in Philip Dray’s At the hands of persons unknown: The Lynching of Black America where he writes:
“Discerning who and what type of person took part in lynchings is made difficult by the fact that those who carried out the extralegal punishments were pointedly anonymous. This was both practical— it protected lynchers from arrest and prosecution— and symbolic, in that the lynching was seen as a conservative act, a defense of the status quo. The coroner’s inevitable verdict, ‘Death at the hands of persons unknown,’ affirmed the public’s tacit complicity; no persons had committed a crime, because the lynching had been an expression of the community’s will” (ix).
The community’s will was to terrorize, oppress and punish African Americans without judicial process. Persons were often kidnapped from their homes or taken from their prison cells in an effort to get justice for the wronged, offended and in some cases, jealous. For African Americans who would hold their heads high with dignity or pride, they could often be found with their heads in nooses, bodies mutilated, entrails exposed. They had to be brought low in order to maintain the status quo of white power and privilege.
The savage murder of Emmett Till, a fourteen- year- old from Chicago who was visiting family in Money, Mississippi, drew national attention and energized the Civil Rights Movement. Accused of whistling at a socially colored white woman, he would be silenced for good. He would receive a kind of southern justice while his killers would go free.
Lynching, nooses, the silence and secrecy that surrounds this communal violence is not often talked about, at least not cross- culturally. And yet it is our silence that keeps the cycle going and it is not for the absence of words. For African Americans, Dayton shares, “Almost every black American family has a story in its history of an ancestor who ‘come up missing,’ who vanished into that empty place— the rural crossroads or rail siding, the bayou or jail cell— where the South at times sought to resolve its most intractable ‘problem.’” The historical unjust treatment of African and later African American bodies is more American than apple pie and baseball. The understanding that life for socially colored black bodies will not be easy and the need to temper your children for fear of retaliation from persons in power dates back to the days of slavery.
Watching our mouths, not thinking to highly of ourselves has been handed down as a survival techniques. Smiling and laughing despite what is being said about us or to us was said to spare the feelings of those socially colored white and the lives of those socially colored black. It is a delicate balance but forgetting one’s place in the hierarchy of race is dangerous.
The noose is a reminder that the law is not on the side of African Americans but in the hands of the executioner. It is no wonder then the great distrust that African Americans have of the legal system. Also, with police officers sometimes doubling as members of the Ku Klux Klan, it is not hard to understand the historical and racialized criminalization of socially colored black bodies.
African Americans cannot afford the luxury of hoping that persons will assume that they are a good person and too often the benefit of the doubt is lost in the first exchange. The belief in the social construct of race and the threat of socially colored black bodies continues. Ironically, it is this body that is threatened, singled out and sorted out as the problem.
But, why all of this talk about nooses and lynching? It is so dark and depressing. It was so long ago, right? Well, I had no plans to discuss it. However, it seems that there are those who it to be a part of our conversation, at least those who visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture. A noose was left there today.
And don’t say it is the action of one. Don’t give them the benefit of anonymity. “At the hands of persons unknown” will not do. No, we must seek them out. Call them out.
Because this is not just some terrible act, some heinous symbol. But, it is a sign of unbridled terrorism. And it is a reminder to all those who claim Africa as their home and the source of their heritage that your body is not safe, that your body must bow to white supremacy or it will hang.
A noose in the National Museum of African American History and Culture reminds us that this form of hatred, this kind of unfounded vengeance upon the African American body is still desired by some, that the crowd is only a few steps away. It is only waiting for people to go silent.
The noose around one American strangles us all.
Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States 1889-1919, (New York: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1919).
Ann Alexander, “Like an Evil Wind: The Roanoke Riot of 1893 and the Lynching of Thomas Smith,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 100 (1992): 173-206.
Shawn Leigh Alexander, “Vengeance without Justice, Injustice without Retribution: The Afro-American Council’s Struggle against Racial Violence,” Great Plains Quarterly 27, no. 2 (2007): 117-33.
Sandy Alexandre, The Properties of Violence: Claims to Ownership in Representations of Lynching (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012).
James Allen, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Sante Fe: Twin Palms Publishers, 2000).
Devery S. Anderson, Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2015).
J. Brown, “Philosophy of Lynching,” The Voice of the Negro 1, no. 11 (1904): 555-59.
John E. Bruce, The Blood Red Record (Albany: Argus Company, 1900).
George W. Chamlee, “Is Lynching Ever Defensible?,” Forum (1927).
Frederick Douglass, “Lynching Black People Because They Are Black,” Christian Educator 5, no. 3 (1894): 95-108.
Philip Dray, At the hands of persons unknown: The Lynching of Black America, (New York: The Modern Library, 2002).
Jacqueline Denise Goldsby, A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
Trudier Harris-Lopez, Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1984).
Karlos K. Hill, Beyond the Rope: The Impact of Lynching on Black Cultural Memory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).
James H. Madison, A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in America, 1st ed. (New York: Palgrave, 2001).
Michael J. Pfeifer, “The Ritual of Lynching: Extralegal Justice in Missouri, 1890-1942,” Gateway Heritage 13 (1993): 22-33.
Mamie Till-Mobley, and Chris Benson, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America, 1st ed. (New York: Random House, 2003).