I don’t know how many lynching sites I’ve walked past in the last month. The number is definitely more than one, and likely more than I imagine. Often, I found myself staring at trees, visualizing a brutal history for each one, trying to wrap my mind and spirit around the horror that could have happened there – that had happened there, for all I knew. There are very few markers to show exactly where anti-Black violence occurred in America, perhaps in part because it happened in too many places to name.
Often, I found myself staring at trees, visualizing a brutal history for each one, trying to wrap my mind and spirit around the horror that could have happened there – that had happened there, for all I knew.
The massiveness of racist brutality overwhelmed me as I walked through the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Craning my neck to read each name on the markers (memorializing lynching victims) that hung above my head, I tried to imagine the number of people that each murder touched – the Black individuals, families, and communities fragmented by white supremacist violence; the bloodthirsty voyeurs who snacked on peanuts while watching horrific torture and murder; the countless others who knew of the impending spectacle and kept their heads down, doing nothing to intervene.
The last category, in particular, disturbed me. I thought of the children and grandchildren of lynch mob members, many still alive in the United States today, ignorant of their families’ history or willing, through their silence, to let the bloody past fade from memory. I pictured the flow of money from plantation owners to Northern industrialists, a series of transactions that allowed whites in outwardly non-slaveowning states to quietly fill their pockets with money reaped through bondage. As I struggled to picture the number of people whose complicity sustained centuries of lynching, I saw the violence of racism as a collective project, upheld by both narrative and silence.
In communities that refuse to reckon with their own history, the narratives that enable white supremacy to remain un-challenged, allowing – in the words of Dr. David Hooker – for the violent institutions supported by those narratives to re-emerge. I questioned, as I would often do during the Fellowship, where to go when speaking out seems to lose its power.
Emerging from the memorial’s main structure, I saw rows of markers lying like gravestones in neat rows, waiting to be removed and reclaimed by the communities in which the murders took place. Time Magazine’s profile of Bryan Stevenson, the creative force behind the memorial, describes the unclaimed markers as providing “silent reproach” to those who refuse to own their history. I wasn’t sure that I agreed. On one hand, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice was tremendously beautiful and moving, performing the necessary work of honoring victims of anti-Black violence. But I struggled to believe that a silent rebuke from Montgomery would be deeply felt in communities where a conspiracy of silence continues to mask historical and present injustice. In communities that refuse to reckon with their own history, the narratives that enable white supremacy to remain un-challenged, allowing – in the words of Dr. David Hooker – for the violent institutions supported by those narratives to re-emerge. I questioned, as I would often do during the Fellowship, where to go when speaking out seems to lose its power.
Visiting the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum, also in Montgomery, also drove me to question the significance of public attention as a strategy for social change. News footage of Birmingham police officers unleashing dogs on peacefully protesting Black schoolchildren showed the strength of nonviolent resistance, during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, as a strategy for highlighting the brutality of the Jim Crow South. In the early years of broadcast television, seeing violence enacted against nonviolent civil rights demonstrators in real time was instrumental in garnering support for desegregation. The last few years of anti-Black violence in America, however, have told a different story. Videos of Black people being harassed, beaten, and killed are now so commonplace that Black death on the Internet has become its own kind of grotesque spectacle. The museum made me fearful of contributing to this pattern – spectacle begetting inaction begetting continued violence – in my own desire to speak against injustice.
The words of Marshall “Eddie” Conway, one of the United States’ longest-incarcerated political prisoners, provided me with some direction. In my temporary hometown of San Jose, CA, I work with a local government office that provides services to formerly incarcerated individuals. I was eager to hear from Mr. Conway, who had spent upwards of 40 years behind bars, about his strategies for surviving imprisonment and challenging mass incarceration after his release. Mr. Conway spoke about the degrading treatment of prisoners, both by prison staff and by the non-incarcerated public who refused to see them as worthy of redemption or care, and of the importance of “humanizing” prisoners. Going into prisons and interacting in person with incarcerated people, he said, never fails to transform the perspectives of people “on the outside.”
I hope to use my Action Project as an opportunity to “humanize” the reality of mass incarceration in the San Francisco Bay Area, creating a venue – in the form of a roundtable discussion series – for formerly incarcerated people to share conversation, resources, and empathy with community members
In listening to Eddie Conway, I realized that humanization – or rather, empathy – makes the difference between speaking out for righteousness and cheapening others’ suffering. Visibility becomes spectacle when we forget that there are humans – whole, complex, hurting – behind the stories we tell. In my advocacy, I aim to communicate and defend the humanity of those I serve. Informed by these goals, I hope to use my Action Project as an opportunity to “humanize” the reality of mass incarceration in the San Francisco Bay Area, creating a venue – in the form of a roundtable discussion series – for formerly incarcerated people to share conversation, resources, and empathy with community members and Stanford Law School professors.
The words of Professor Ward Churchill guided my thinking about the role of protest in the face of apparent futility. Professor Churchill’s exhortation to resist injustice by “refusing to accept the paradigm,” to view the creation of instability as “an opportunity for fundamental change,” pushed me to revisit my troubled thoughts about complicity’s role in sustaining racial violence. At the very least, challenging injustice creates a fissure in the conspiracy of silence, opening the way for future action even if change seems unattainable in the present. I drew determination from the words of the late Bayard Rustin, marginalized even within his own coalition of civil rights activists for his homosexuality but unfailingly committed to the cause of racial equality: “There are times when you can do nothing, but you have to cry out against injustice. Even the stones would cry out if you did not cry out.”
I often struggle, when considering the scope of injustice, to believe that the arc of the moral universe will ultimately bend toward justice. I’m also not sure, much of the time, what a just world looks like when so much of the world I have come to know is rooted in oppression. But I believe that the fight for justice is worth pursuing anyway. I challenge myself, going forward, to remain focused in my work when I do not know if I will see the fruits of my labor. I hope as well to carry with me Bayard Rustin’s loyalty, despite personal pain, to the pursuit of liberation.
“This is why we have to show up.”
In the final days of the Fellowship, I found my thoughts returning to the evening of July 12, the program’s third day. On that Thursday evening, we had planned to attend a “Know Your Rights” meeting for undocumented immigrants in a nearby community. Minutes after leaving for the meeting, we received notice that the meeting had been cancelled due to a bomb threat. The news left me shaken and furious. I was unable to shake my rage at the fact that government-sponsored separation of immigrant families and incarceration of undocumented children is somehow, apparently, insufficient, that undocumented people cannot even leave their homes to share information and solidarity without the threat of violence. In the fog of my anger, the words of my friend Adeola, another Fellow, stayed with me: “This is why we have to show up.”
Adeola’s words, echoing in my head three weeks later, made me reckon with my past failure to show up when I should have done so. I had chosen not to attend several “Know Your Rights” meetings in my own hometown, reasoning to myself that my presence, as a white person and an American citizen, might not be welcome in a space intended to serve undocumented individuals of Latin American origin. My outsider status might even constitute a threat or disruption to intra-community dynamics. Out of both self-serving desire to be seen as a “good ally” and genuine concern for being respectful of communities that are not my own, I kept myself from showing up. In doing so, I now understand, I assumed that I knew the desires of the community I hoped to uplift, deciding on their behalf that they did not want or need me to join the fight.
Going forward, I commit myself to showing up, even when I’m not sure that I will be good at doing so. I want, of course, to remain respectful of the communities with whom I work. I am prepared to be told that my presence is not needed, but hearing that message requires, before anything else, that I show up and listen. The reality of the present, from bomb threats called in to “Know Your Rights” meetings to the public murders of unarmed Black boys, is too dire for me to tell myself that I am the wrong person to stand up. My inaction will be taken by both the victims and the perpetrators of racist violence as evidence that I do not care. I refuse to absolve myself, out of anxiety or propriety or misplaced respect, of the responsibility to act.
My four weeks in Atlanta pushed me to confront the mass complicity that injustice requires. At the same time, the people I met taught me the deep importance of another kind of cooperation. On days when hopelessness threatened to envelop me, I drew upon the determination of those around me – speakers, Fellows, community members. I’ve grown up associating my own value with my ability to compete, and I have to struggle mightily to keep from using others to judge my worth. But spending a month in the presence of storytellers and freedom fighters, compassionate judges and ethical lawyers and prophetic performers, faithful friends and compassionate comrades does something for the spirit. I am honored to have learned to see hope in others, to stand up and show up even when victory lies out of sight, to defend humanity where it is threatened, and to create ruptures where I can in the conspiracy of silence.