There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. - Maya Angelou
This quote is one of several inscribed on the walls of the Brooklyn Museum’s current exhibit “The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America.” This is a narrative exhibit where the arrangement of objects tells a story about our nation’s social history. The cave, the campfire, the blues song in cotton field; throughout time humans have used stories as a fundamental way to learn.
Over 4,000 lynchings were documented in the US states between 1877, at the end of Reconstruction, and 1950, according to extensive historical research conducted by the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization, in Montgomery, Alabama, that provides legal representation to prisoners on death row.
As one enters the exhibit, an interactive map replicated here invites spectators to locate the 12 states that were the most common sites for lynchings. In recent years, descendants of lynching victims have collected soil from these sites as part of their own personal mourning process -- for remembrance ceremonies along with the placing of a memorial.
Lynchings were acts of public torture that terrorized black communities throughout the country. It was usually the black bodies of African-American males that were beaten, hanged, shot, dismembered in these violent acts of public spectacle, unlawful murders that went without legal prosecution or arrest. The exhibit uses the term “racial terror lynching,” which situates our understanding of these historic murders in terms of the terror many American’s feel from Islamic extremists, and as a way to better understand and empathize with the history of experience of blacks in America.
Passing through the exhibit, the spectator witnesses the transgenerational impact of lynchings on black families, as told by victim’s descendants. “Uprooted,” (2017), a 7-minute film, begins “I always hated doing family tree projects. I remember in third grade a girl won a prize for tracing her family tree back to the Mayflower… I couldn’t get past my great-grandparents.” The narrator, Shirah Dedman, speaking as an adult, continues “it was working with my mom on this project, that “I learned the truth about what had happened.”
The video goes on to portray the life and brutal death of Dedman’s great grandfather, Thomas Miles Sr., a black business owner hanged in 1912 in Louisiana for allegedly writing letters to a white woman. Lynching were usually punishments for a minor social transgressions rather for than the commission of a legal crime. Desman’s ancestors fled Louisiana after the murder and the viewer witnesses as she, her mother and aunt travel down south again for the first time in over 100 years seeking knowledge about the man, the place and a loss they have never fully known.
The power of narrative is familiar to the mental health field in terms of helping the individual cope with the overwhelming emotional experience of trauma. Trauma, from the Greek word "wound," is a kind of shock, a disruption of feeling and incompletion of knowing. It is a crisis of truth results in amnesia or the forgetting of a particular reality and the repression of the experience. In Freud's early description, the affect or emotional energy which accompanies the traumatic experience "remains in a 'strangulated' state," and the feeling of the experience is severed from consciousness. (Studies in Hysteria, Breuer and Freud) Trauma is something a person has not been able to sufficiently put in words, or to symbolize; and some scholars argue that certain traumatic experiences remain so overwhelming they will always be beyond the possibility of symbolic representation.
Among the show’s aesthetic works is a large mosaic black figure by American artist Jack Whitten. Black Monolith II (1994) is made of individual, idiosyncratic tiles embedded with organic matter and acrylic paint overlaying the canvas. The mouth of the figure is represented by a barely discernible razor-blade, literally a small cutting knife-edge that encases the central point of the canvas.
This work was made in homage to Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man and the accompanying item description cites the artist’s favorite passage from this book:
Nothing, storm or flood, must get in the way of our need for light and ever more and brighter light. The truth is the light and the light is the truth.
In individual therapy, a person tries to recover lost pieces of himself and acknowledge what psychoanalyst Robert Langs calls “hidden remembrances.” Langs goes on: in order to learn from the past and not repeat it, “we must ferret out the part of the past that we have barred from awareness. We must reclaim that which we have obliterated or not experienced in the first place.” Artifacts and aesthetic objects of this exhibit do similar psychic work. They are displayed in the service of a narrative that will help enable us to recover lost pieces of our shared social history, those pieces of our national past that resist telling and are too intolerable to acknowledge in full awareness.
“Abbeville,” (2017) another short film, documents the mourning process of another multigenerational black family. The viewer witnesses the tragic portrait of Anthony Crawford, a prominent black landowner Abbeville, South Carolina, who had disagreement at the town market with a white storeowner over the price of his cottonseed and was then abducted by a mob of 200 men and lynched at the fairgrounds. Two days later the family was advised to leave Abbeville, “for the sake of peace and the best interest of the county.” In the video Crawford's great-great-granddaughter Doria Johnson returns to Abbeville 100 years after Miles’ death for a memorial service: “My family was devastated in 1916, our land was stolen, and we were ordered out of town by hundreds of our white neighbors… SC Governor Manning declared he could not protect us.” Johnson describes her ancestors’ horror over the town “ride-throughs” by the KKK at nightfall and how her surviving relatives finally fled north, her grandmother wrapped in a newspaper to protect her from the cold.
The rooms of the exhibit gradually illuminate how the racist attitudes that led to lynchings have, since the early 20th c, infiltrated the administration of criminal justice in this country, especially in southern legislatures. One wall declares: “Slavery was never abolished, it only evolved.” This is a quote by civil-rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson who founded EJI in 1989. As he describes it again in a video: “The death penalty is the stepchild of lynchings.” This screening room introduces Anthony Ray Hinton who spent 30 years on Alabama’s death row for a crime he did not commit before being exonerated in 2015. Hinton tells it like this: “They went from the tree to the electric chair… They brought it inside… They took off the white robe and put on the black robe.” Indeed the states with most lynchings have the highest rate of death penalty convictions.
A now grey, bearded man, Hinton gives the viewer a sobering account of his arrest at age 29 by two white detectives at his home in Birmingham. After proclaiming his innocence, one of the detectives responded: “I don’t care whether you did it or didn’t… there’s five things that are going to convict you. Number 1: you’re black. Number 2: a white man is going say you shot him. Number 3: you’re going to have a white prosecutor. Number 4: you’re going to have a white judge. Number 5: you’re going to have an all white jury. You know what that spell? Conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction.”
The public spectacle of lynching that diminished in the 1950s resurfaced into capital punishment administered by the state soon after and, even more, in another form of shared racial trauma: in the cop shootings that we witness on our iPhones, TV, computers as a global spectacle.
Democracy is a psychic process as well as a system of government, suggests depth journalist Pythia Peay in her recent book, America On the Couch: Psychological Perspectives on American Politics and Culture. Our inner capacity for democratic thinking is compromised when we endure trauma and regress into what Jungian analyst Donald Kalsched calls a “dissociation psychology.” We split-off from the painful experience and erect a defensive psychic structure. In this condition, “the vulnerable parts of the self are exiled, and a survivor self is installed… One part of the psyche takes over in the interest of survival, rather than in the interest of relationship and wholeness” (Peay, 65).
Clinical psychologist Harriet Lerner describes it this way: “When we feel threatened, our central nervous system overheats and we become tense and guarded… Anxiety drives people toward polarities” (Peay, 442). Binary oppositions infiltrate thought such as good versus evil, right versus wrong, black versus white. Public discourse degenerates into totalistic categories. We become intolerant of the “other.” “In the traumatized, fear-ridden psyche, democracy is compromised and we become intolerant of the “other”… instead we get totalitarianism and narrative of white supremacy. Becoming conscious of these psychological processes, more reflective and wiser -- these are our tasks as 21st c American citizens, Peay argues. The capacity for concern for the other is foundational to our emotional maturity and health, as individuals and as a nation.
Part of the problem is an impaired ability to listen. Lerner argues for adding a new category to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: Listening Deficit Disorder (LDD). “If only our wish to understand the other person was as great as our passion to be understood. If that were so we would be living in a different world” (Peay, 441).
The last room of this show is a “reflection room” offering paper, pencils and hope. It asks the spectator to contribute in their way to the ongoing moral story of our nation. To this end, the visitor is invited to imagine what justice would look like today and to make his or her own memorial.
A near-by wall intones the verse of Langston Hughes:
I say it plain
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath –
America will be!
The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America, Robert E. Blum Gallery, is at the Brooklyn Museum until September 3. This is the first of two posts that will cover the show.
Peay, Pythia. (2015). America On the Couch: Psychological Perspectives on American Politics and Culture. New York, NY: Lantern Books.