No, You Can’t Look Away

I’m writing about lynching today, and if you think you don’t want to read about it, magnify and multiply that feeling by about 10 million and you’ll get some idea of how much I don’t want to write about it. So why do it? Because looking away from it won’t make it go away and not talking about it doesn’t numb the pain. The subject came to the forefront due to a 60 Minutes segment that aired in early April. It was  narrated by Oprah Winfrey to mark the opening of a new museum in Montgomery, AL. It’s called the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and it is dedicated to the memory of the more than 4,000 Black Americans who were lynched between 1882 and 1981. That’s right–1981. I leave it to each of you to background yourselves if you are unfamiliar with the disgusting horror that was lynching. My job at this moment is to try and explain why I have to write about it. When I see or hear the word my gut knots. My head and my heart hurt. Lynching was proof positive that no Black woman, man or child was safe in America. No laws protected us. We had no rights. We were not guaranteed life, liberty and the right to pursue happiness. We were sport, prey. Why? Because people were angry that the slaves had been emancipated, angry that people not recognized as human could seek to educate ourselves and buy property and open businesses, could expect to be paid for our labor. And in the deep South, where the only thing that separated the reality of being white from the reality of being Black was shackles, poor, unskilled, uneducated whites bitterly resented the sight of former slaves taking seriously the idea of freedom. The KKK and those who didn’t feel the need to bother with sheets were America’s original home grown terrorists, for we were terrorized by the knowledge that at any time, day or night, we could be swept up and brutalized in unspeakably vile, disgusting ways, the burning and hanging being the end game. People turned out for lynchings. It was a party. You can find post cards that people sent to their relatives. As a child of the South I grew up with this as my historical reality. My home state of Georgia holds the record for the most lynchings. So my gut already was in spasms following the 60 Minutes  episode and several conversations with friends about it when, a week or so later, I see the word LYNCHED in a headline. WTF?!

You probably saw the story: Seems a Canadian fellow journeyed deep into the Peruvian jungle seeking to experience an hallucinogenic herb known to the local population. It seems that the 81-year old Shaman he solicited for his experiment refused him, so he killed her, which greatly displeased her neighbors. So they lynched him.

I really tried not to write about this but I found that I could not ignore the feelings that arise in the presence of the word: LYNCH. And I can’t avoid asking this question: For those who want to Make America Great Again–is this what they mean? How many Americans are terrorized by other realities every day: Those who fear being grabbed up and deported. Students terrified at the prospect of being murdered in their schools. Women treated as sport or prey  at work or worse, at home.

I hope I don’t have to write about this again. I also hope that the feelings and emotions that word raises and me one day will fade. I hope and pray.

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15 comments

  1. What is that saying … those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it? We need to face the hard facts of what happened in the past, acknowledge how horrifically wrong they were, and ensure they are never repeated!

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  2. As a Canadian, I am ashamed of my countryman. As a human, I am horrified by the bigotry and cruelty of those who would do and have done atrocities against people who breathe and bleed just like they do.

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  3. Penny, I noticed that you didn’t put quotation marks around the word “lynched” when it referred to the man in Peru. I thought that in addition to the grief and anger you feel around lynching, you might also be wanting to say that the word used there was inappropriate. Do you think it was? I’m a caucasian immigrant to this country so don’t want to make assumptions. In the Peruvian case they killed him because he’d killed one of theirs, and the method they used was hanging. But does that make it a lynching? Surely these types of killings are usually called revenge killings rather than lynching. I thought that using that word detracted from its horrific significance to what it was — all the things you describe, done specifically against a race of people.

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    • Thanks for your thoughts, Alison. I didn’t put quotation marks around the word because my purpose here was to examine and share with WomenWords the visceral reaction I have to seeing the word. No, I don’t know exactly what was done to the man in Peru, but I can only hope that he was spared the horror of the Southern lynching, most of which occurred while the victim was still alive. Death was the blessing.

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  4. Your title worked. I saw ‘I’m writing about lynching today…” and that was enough to make me start to scroll past, but your title caught me. No, I can’t look away. You reminded me of the painfulness of being the target of terrorism (as an out-loud-and-proud lesbian you know I’ve been there) something I can’t afford to forget. Your eloquent writing also brought home the horrific reality of being an auto-target for any alt-wrong que-que-que’ers (Sorry, I do that so the ‘bots don’t register me even speaking of them so they don’t get any SEO points). I know what it’s like to be targeted simply for being who I am, but I can never fully grasp what it means to live black in our racist America. Your blog today, hard as it was to write, breeds empathy. Your artistry wields power.

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    • Being a hate target for being who and what you are could be so quickly relegated to the stupid pile if it weren’t so painful…and if the damn scars ever healed. Thanks for taking the time.

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  5. Stunning, visceral piece. From here in Australia, where we have our own shameful history of genocide of the indigenous population, I felt sick to my core reading your piece. Thank you for your strong voice, speaking for so many who can’t.

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  6. Penny, thank you for your bravery in choosing to confront this part of our history. Thank you for trusting us, the readers of Women and Words, to be a part of the conversation and for challenging us to confront this with you. Reading this left me feeling vulnerable and ashamed and afraid and outraged and so many other things. Thank you for framing the blog in the context of not being able to look away. The only way forward, the only way to a future where we do better, is to first go through, to do the unpleasant work of recognizing and dealing with all the ugly, corrupt, festering parts that we’d like to forget. Ignoring something because it makes us uncomfortable doesn’t make it less true. It simply makes us weak and ignorant and therefore more likely to repeat the past.

    I stand with you, humbled by your words and inspired by your strength.

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  7. Penny…as difficult as this may have been to write, it was a necessary reminder to all of us that America is still a place where those who hate now have a voice in the highest office of our Country. I have been lucky enough to have lived next door to an inter-racial couple who are totally awesome. I’ll call him B, who is now 82, was originally from Georgia or Alabama…I can’t remember which. He served in the Army overseas, came home and eventually started his own antique business, traveling all over the States and in Europe. We were talking recently about the current problem in the White House, and the audacity of those who feel they now have a platform to spew their hate. He is even more aware of his surroundings, conscious of the possibility of being pulled over just for the color of his skin, or just walking down the street or shopping…and that makes me angry on his behalf. B is one of the most generous, kindest person I have ever met. It just really sends shivers down my spine to think that B, or any person of color lives this reality. So, thank you for writing this.

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  8. Penny, I read your blog the day it was posted, but I’m just now writing a response because the only words I had/have are: fear, anger, horror, reality, nausea, abandonment of principles, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Dee Rees’ “Mudbound,” the torche carriers in Charlottesville, the grad student at Yale whose presence inspired a white dorm mate to call the police, Dr. Gates arrested in Cambridge, MA for climbing through the window of his own house, the black female airb’n’b guests suspected of breaking and entering and investigated by the police, Kanye W. selling our ancestors’ souls to sell his new record.

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  9. Thanks for taking the time, Renee–you always make me think–and what I think is how much I wish we didn’t have so many new and recent examples of situations that ignite the fear, anger, horror, etc. As for Kanye, the less said the better. Watch his mouth shoot him in the foot.

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  10. If you negros would quit following the Fake Hebrews around like brain dead sheep by supporting Communisim and open borders like fools then we wouldn’t be trying to restore our Country so bad. You do realize your races slice of the pie is growing smaller each day because you foolishly support illegal enemy combatants children’s future more than your own don’t you? The Negro is now number three in population behind Jose. Let that sink in. Your race is brain dead if you support illegals over your own children and Americans. Your races willingness or stupidity that causes you to allow your race to be puppets for the Fake Hebrews is what led to much of what you write about. Sad but true. One of your hero’s Martin King attended Communist training school that’s a fact. In America we despise Communisim and I feel no remorse for those who died pushing it or for ignorant puppets being used by them. Here’s an idea, support Democracy and Americans and quit being stupid brain dead sheep on a fake Hebrews string. It’s people like you who don’t respect our Country’s borders that are fools. Don’t act so upset when Americans resist your one world government with open borders and the slavery to it’s IRS. My kids future isn’t a game to me or the rest of the Pro White American Warriors. Get your head out of the past and worry about how your agenda will affect your children’s future. Lynching is nothing compared to the full blown revolution that these types of foolish thoughts and following the Fake Hebrews Communisim will bring. Your gonna love these Animals who come here illegally until they kill you. We will never allow America to be turned into some third world shithole so you can foolishly support those who want to steal our children’s future. We don’t follow fools who are stuck in the last century who are oblivious to the fact that the future Revolution your ideas will cause will make your lynchings look like child’s play. It’s this open border nonsense that could turn our rivers red with blood, now that’s serious food for thought. You have most likely never known a soul who was lynched and your attempt to prey on people’s sympathies is weak. Get out of the past and actually start worrying what your stupid ideas will cause to our kids futures. The Klan has not lynched anyone in over thirty years! Yet you support Illegals who have killed far more than the Klan ever lynched in only ten years. My oh my, one day I hope some folks wake up from the caveman stupor, before they start the final battle out of stupidity and the puppets string.

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