"The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is indifference."
—- Beah Richards
I set foot back in Jackson on Feb. 10, 2004, after a year and a half of moving around. I had traveled to what I considered the most liberal parts of the country, California and New York. I left in search of something different, a place of new ideas and open minds, where I could feel free.
While attending Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., I met my forever-friend and inspiration, Komozi Woodard, a professor of African-American Studies and prolific historian/author. Although I was receiving the liberal education I had always wanted, loneliness and intense stress broke me into coming back home. Although I swore to myself I would never return to Mississippi to live, here I am, at age 22, a Mississippi native, resident of Northeast Jackson, graduate of Jackson Preparatory School, and soon to be an Ole Miss grad.
As I got off the plane, I put "Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow" by Leon Litwack, in my backpack (I wanted to continue Komozi's curriculum during my absence) and headed for the airport door. As I walked into the muggy air, I was immediately confronted with the fact that deep down I had written off Mississippi as a backward, anti-progressive state, and I did not want to be connected to it in any way if I could help it.
I wanted out—of what I viewed as the typical "Southern" way of thinking and of life. I wanted to disassociate myself with my state's deplorable past: More lynchings occurred in Mississippi than in any other state in the 20th century. I am not denying that there was racism everywhere—I do not have to; the list of lynchings spans the United States—but this is an explicit part of our state's history that we have to bear.
Many have asked me: "What is your deal? Why are you so obsessed with African-American history?" Truthfully, I do not know the perfect answer. All I know is that I cannot stand the injustice of it all. Africans were the only people removed against their will, taken from their continent of origin for the explicit purpose of slavery. Their lives became hell on earth. Through slavery to the end of Reconstruction to the Black Codes to Jim Crow laws, the eternal list of subjugation and dehumanization continues today; for example, the mass imprisonment of black males.
How can I play a part in making reparations for the past? All I can do is learn as much as I can about this history and help to continue the fight. Seneca once said, "Injustice never rules forever."
A couple of days after arriving home, I heard that an exhibit called "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America" was on display at Jackson State University. I was amazed that Mississippi would allow the naked truth about the past—83 images of lynchings spanning from 1882-1981—to be uncovered right under its nose. I thought to myself what a big step this could be if people would actually get out and go see their history, our history. This is the real thing, not the edited version. It is one thing to read about lynchings, but it is quite a different experience to see the actual photos and postcards documenting the brutality of "mad citizenry," as exhibit owner James Allen put it.
There was never a question in my mind about whether or not to view the exhibit. I had to. As I approached the JSU Guesthouse, I felt as though I was shrinking under the weight of shame.
The walls were silent, almost in reverence for the lost lives shown in the photographs they held so carefully. I took a deep breath and began an experience I will never forget.
Step by step, stopping in front of each photograph, newspaper article, postcard and propaganda, I leapt into the past. Before I knew it, I was weeping. I wept for the charred bodies hanging from trees that are supposed to symbolize life, the limp bodies of mother and son suspended from a bridge, the looks on the faces of jubilant spectators, and the brainwashing of young children promoting the continuity of this vicious practice. These white folks, dressed in their Sunday best, would enjoy a carnival-like atmosphere where the main event consisted of slaughtering black people as if they were animals, then wake up the next morning to worship Jesus. I missed the part of the Bible that advocates genocide.
I wept for each and every human being … human being … who lost their lives at the hands of a mob, and I wept for the insatiable evil of mankind. I wanted to scream out loud: "Please, please, I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I wish it could be taken back!" as Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" played in the background. But it can't be taken back, and it shouldn't be forgotten.
There are pervasive myths surrounding lynching. Many I have spoken to about it think the primary reason for this horrific practice stemmed from a fear of black men tainting the sanctity of white womanhood. This is wrong! Leon Litwack states that "out of nearly 5,000 lynchings, only 640 of them considered rape a possible allegation." And even if it was a correct assumption, a black man's life should not be taken in order to keep a white woman on a pedestal.
Black people were lynched for threatening to move up in society, out of their "assigned" station to which the white man had restricted them. Those doing quite well for themselves were primary targets. As Litwack also stated, "[T]he closer the black man got to the ballot box, the more he looked like a rapist."
Everyone should take time to view this exhibit. This is our history, and we all need to re-evaluate views infected by the racial ideology of the past. Doing so might change your life.
Natalie Irby is an editorial intern at the Jackson Free Press.
"Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America" will be on display at the JSU Guesthouse, at the corner of Lynch and Bowie Streets, through July 4. Exhibit hours: Mon. closed; Tues.-Fri. 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat. 10 a.m.-6:30 p.m.; Sun. Noon-5 p.m. For information, call 979-1476 or 979-1475. http://www.withoutsanctuary.org