Trigger warning: I’m about to discuss violence, including violent death, and racism.
The events unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Michael Brown, exist within a deep and painful historical context. This fact seems lost on many White people who do not understand why there is enough pain, grief, rage, just plain emotional momentum to keep protests going for nine days. It is a distinctly White privilege to forget history. I’d like to talk about the historical context, here, as my response to seeing the following message, repeated across social media:
I haven’t been silent, and I’m going to use this space in the best way I know how. I have nothing against “the police” in general, but I want to talk about a specific failure on the part of the police, in the past, as uniquely relevant to what’s happening, now: the 1930 lynching of Abe Smith and Tom Shipp.
First, facts from Michael Brown’s recent death: On August 9th, 2014, a Black teen was shot dead by a police officer in the middle of a residential street, in the middle of the day, and his body was left in the street for hours. People turning to social media to process what was happening reported this narrative in real time. They saw it and heard it from inside their homes. This should spark vehement protest, simply because it’s dangerous to fire a gun several times on a residential street, especially compared to a chase, on foot or by car. (See this article in the New Yorker on how Michael Brown died for reporting on those details.)
The White privilege to forget history allows us to see this news, apparently, without seeing the unique pain and significance of a Black body, left dead, in public. Whiteness gives us (yes, I will own my privilege as a White woman) the privilege to ignore the centuries of mutilated Black bodies left dead, in public, evidence that they were worth less/worthless, or worse, in order to silence and terrorize anyone who dared not believe that Blackness made a person subhuman.
Historical context: On August 6th, 1930, two Black teens, who had been arrested and charged with armed robbery, murder, and rape, were dragged from a jail in Marion, Indiana, by a White mob. The police were unable to stop the huge crowd, armed with sledge hammers and crow bars. But the police had also hung the bloody shirt of the man these teens were suspected of shooting in the window of the jail, after he died. The two men were dragged out and beaten, one by one, arms broken so that they would not be able to grab the robe, and then lynched, hanged from a tree, in the town center. Their bodies were left there while men, women and even children stood watching, many from other towns around the county, to satisfy curiosity. A sixteen-year-old boy had also been arrested for the crime, and he was dragged to the same tree almost half an hour later. Someone stopped the mob from hanging him, despite the rope that was actually around his neck, and he lived to tell the story of the Marion lynchings to NPR in 2010. No one knows, to this day, whether these three young Black men, were actually guilty of any crime. Lynching was not a new practice, but it was unusual for such a large mob to participate. It was also unusual for photographs to be printed into postcards and sold as souvenirs the next day. The link above will take you to a story that includes the most iconic photograph taken that evening. Copyright law forbids me from posting it here, but if you look at the faces in the White mob, you will see why a Black community might assume that apathy motivated the disregard for Michael Brown’s body, even over eighty years after Abe Smith and Tom Shipp were lynched, and James Cameron narrowly escaped death.
A White, Jewish man wrote a poem inspired by that photograph, and news of other lynchings. It became famous when Billie Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit” as a song. Here are they lyrics, and a video of Holiday singing the iconic melody.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
– Abel Meeropol
There was no protest in Marion, Indiana, over these barbaric killings in 1930, but the national media picked up the story. It made its way into the hearts and minds of artists like Abel Meeropol, who himself faced discrimination for his membership in the Communist Party, and for his faith. His words resonated with singer Billie Holiday and the people who bought this record, who made this song famous. At the time, Black bodies, left dead, in public, were so commonplace that Meeropol could metaphorically make them part of the Southern landscape, and the world nodded in understanding, as Billie Holiday’s voice expressed the unbearable pain of that landscape.
It took me a few minutes to understand the significance of the time that passed between the death of Michael Brown and the removal of his body. That space represents my White privilege. I do not see my own son’s body, because his skin is pale, and his hair is blond. When I look at that awful photo of that lynching, in 1930, I do not see him, when I look at the broken bodies hanging from that tree. These images do not haunt my dreams, because my brain knows that white teenagers have not been targeted by American police or racist mobs.
I want to include an image from a past protest, because it’s important to note that my brain does not insert my own relatives into these stories. It is my White privilege to forget history, even for a moment.
I do not see my uncles with their arms raised, fire hoses pointed at them in the name of “crowd dispersal,” in this image from a protest during the Civil Rights Movement, in Danville, Virginia, 1963. Several of my uncles were old enough to be that age, at that time, but their skin color allows me to see this photograph and to not think of them. That is White privilege.
I wrote, after the death of Trayvon Martin, that White privilege means feeling safe in the presence of police, for me. A memorial to the “Foot Soldiers” of the Civil Rights Movement” in Birmingham, Alabama, illustrates why that is not true for so many Black communities.