On the Movement for Lynching Memorials and the new Slavery Museum.

On the Movement for Lynching Memorials
By Francey Russell, from Lenny, June 9, 2016.
Thoka Maer
(Thoka Maer)

We're republishing Francey Russell's piece about the move to commemorate victims of slavery and lynching in light of the recent white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. There has been unfortunately little progress made in reckoning with America's racist past of late: just as activist Bree Newsome was arrested for removing the Confederate flag from South Carolina's state capitol in the wake of the murderous rampage of Dylann Roof in Charleston in 2015, this month Takiyah Thompson was arrested for tearing down a Confederate monument in Durham, North Carolina. As such, memorializing victims of racial hatred is becoming more important by the day. As Francey puts it, "When done well, memorials can function as the basic units for a counter-narrative, for a new way into the world." To donate to the Equal Justice Initiative, which is working to memorialize victims of lynching, click here.

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In his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine individuals killed in the Charleston massacre last year, President Obama affirmed that taking down the Confederate flag on South Carolina's state capitol "would be one step in an honest accounting of America's history. A modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds." The next day, Black activist Bree Newsome scaled the statehouse flagpole to remove the flag herself. By the time she made it to the top, the pole was flanked by cops, who arrested her upon her descent. She was charged with defacing a monument. Newsome later explained her action, saying: "Every day that flag is up there is an endorsement of hate." A month later, the South Carolina House voted to remove the flag, but the charges against Newsome were not dropped.

Confederate-flag enthusiasts claim it is simply a way of honoring the valor of Confederate soldiers, an expression of Southern pride. But in Columbia, as elsewhere in the South, the capitol's flag was not actually a holdover from the end of the Civil War. South Carolina's governor erected the flag in 1962 to protest desegregation and the civil-rights movement. In effect, the Confederate flag was strategically planted as an endorsement of institutional racism precisely when such institutions were being threatened.

"It wouldn't be crazy not to want to go to Alabama, or Mississippi, or Georgia, or America," says Bryan Stevenson, lawyer, professor, and founder of the Equal Justice Institute (EJI), a legal nonprofit based in Montgomery. "I've lived in Alabama for 30 years, and I still feel anxiety and doubt and insecurity living in that state. I am very worried about being victimized and injured and attacked and menaced because I am Black." Stevenson is deeply invested in thinking about how the United States remembers and symbolizes its history of racism. He is one of the country's most active advocates for the construction of memorials to victims of slavery and lynching.

In February of 2015, the EJI published "Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror." The report documents the history of "racial terror lynching" in a dozen Southern states between 1877 and 1950, and notes that "no prominent memorial or monument commemorates the thousands of African Americans who were lynched in America." In a response to the report, the New York Times editorial board argued that America's history of lynching must be integrated into the national conversation about America's past and present. The board endorsed the EJI's call to construct memorials for the victims of racial lynching as an essential part of the work of acknowledgment.

This past December, in Brighton, Alabama, the EJI raised a memorial for William Miller. A white mob lynched Mr. Miller in 1908. He was a coal miner and a union organizer blamed for the bombing of his boss's home (the explosion was in fact set off by whites trying to undermine unionization). The memorial sits near City Hall, recognizing one of the many mostly forgotten and unrecognized victims of lynching and testifying to an American practice and legacy.

At present, there are about a dozen such lynching memorials across the country which were built independently of the EJI. But the EJI's aim is to organize a coordinated national effort to ensure not only that all victims are remembered, but also that America as a whole comes to understand its history. The memorials are meant to function as a partial remedy to what Stevenson calls the "complete absence of awareness and understanding — just total ignorance — about the legacies of slavery." The Brighton memorial to William Miller is the EJI's first official lynching marker, and there are six others currently in the works. To do justice to every person who was lynched, the EJI will have to erect nearly 4,000 more.

(Courtesy of EJI.org)
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Memorialization is an American tradition. In her book Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America, American-studies professor Erika Doss describes the memorial mania phenomenon as: "an obsession with issues of memory and history and an urgent desire to express and claim those issues in visibly public contexts." There are national memorials to the first and second World Wars, and to Vietnam and Korean War veterans. There is a Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, and there is the Emancipation Memorial: built in 1876, funded entirely by freed slaves, with its design overseen entirely by white people, the bronze sculpture shows Lincoln standing and gazing down at a Black man crouching at his feet. There is also the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, which commemorates the Confederate soldiers who died fighting in the Civil War.

But there is no national memorial to slavery, and there is no national memorial for victims of lynching. This is truly staggering, and yet there is little collective sense of outrage. It is certainly not part of the national conversation.

"America [is] a post-genocidal nation that has never owned up to this fact or to the narrative of racial difference that we created," says Stevenson. "We were never motivated to address the narrative created through slavery, because we were never ashamed." Shame does not come easy for anyone or any nation. But, Stevenson thinks, "we've done a very poor job in this country confronting our failures. The American psyche is built on success and triumph. We've come to associate apology or acknowledgment of failure with disloyalty." While the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, the country never directly addressed or apologized for the narrative of racial difference that supported it.

The EJI is currently working with town and city councils to build its markers, all of which would be simple, relatively small, and specific to each individual victim. The memorials are small bronze plaques, with the victim's story written in raised gold. Rather than placing such memorials in a special, marked-off area — like the National Mall — these memorials would be integrated into our everyday world. "With the memorials," says Stevenson, "our objective is really to create a different landscape, where every community that experienced a lynching has to own up to that."

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In response to increasing public attention on the police treatment and killings of Black people, scholars, academics, and journalists have argued that police brutality needs to be understood through the lens of lynching. In a recent interview in The New Yorker, poet Claudia Rankine said of the spectacle of Mike Brown's death: "The sort of execution-style shooting takes it to this whole other place that starts approaching the language of lynching, and public lynching, and bodies in the street that people are walking around." In a similar vein, philosopher Judith Butler wrote about our "racially saturated field of visibility" in her analysis of the footage of the beating of Rodney King.

For Rankine and Butler, lynching and racism need to be conceived not just as acts or ideas, but as a way of seeing the world and a language for making sense of it. This language is part of what make it possible for trained police officers to see 18-year-old Mike Brown as a "demon," or to make the split-second judgment that 12-year-old Tamir Rice was a threat grave enough to require shooting bullets into his small, child's torso. They make it possible for a grand jury to see no reason to bring such killings to trial.

Consider some of the common reasons given for a lynching at the turn of the century and through the 1960's, social transgressions so minor and unpredictable as to be practically unavoidable: being obnoxious, acting suspiciously, arguing with or insulting a white man, living with a white woman, race troubles, unpopularity, demanding respect. Consider some of the circumstances that led to someone getting killed in recent years: selling loose cigarettes, broken taillight, shoplifting cigarillos, knocking on a door seeking help with car trouble, mental-health crisis, playing with a toy in the park.

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For Stevenson, video footage of police killings is crucial for cultivating white people's capacity to see the police as a force of racial oppression forged by postbellum policy. But he also sees a risk. As he points out, "we've accommodated ourselves to seeing violence on screens without being burdened by it."

Just as the killings can be understood as a new form of lynching, so too can the interest in watching be seen as a new version of the documenting and distributing of images of lynching at the beginning of the 20th century. Lynchings have always been spectacles. In response to news stations that played and replayed the police shooting of Walter Scott, professor Britney Cooper wrote in Salon, "Black folks are being treated to an endless replay of this murder on cable news. There is no collective sense that being inundated with video and imagery of these racialized murders of Black men by the police might traumatize and re-traumatize Black people who have yet another body to add to a pile of bodies. Black death has become a cultural spectacle."

By insisting that we remember the history of lynching and let it inform our sense of the present, lynching memorials and other practices of remembrance would cultivate the much-needed collective experience of being burdened by these images. But without such sense of burden and historical understanding, images of racialized murders will not disrupt but will instead simply circulate.

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Stevenson often compares America's discomfort with the memory of its mistakes to other countries' efforts to bear witness to their brutal histories. He sees South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission as one model for collective reckoning with the moral failures of the past; he sees Germany's commitment to memorialization as another. "In Germany, swastikas are illegal. There are memorials everywhere. You are almost required to encounter the legacy of the Holocaust."

Memorials intervene in the world. They interrupt movement. They reroute our thoughts and bulldoze our feelings. They change what we remember, what we celebrate, how and what we see. Of course, they can also be seen as cheap gestures facilitating collective self-congratulation and the cessation of real social change. But as Bree Newsome recognized, flags and memorials are not merely symbolic or ornamental; they are fully symbolic, the shared symbols by which we make sense of the past and the present. The Confederate flag functions as one such symbol, and a lynching memorial stands as another. When done well, memorials can function as the basic units for a counter-narrative, for a new way into the world.

Memorials transform the landscape. But the EJI is also working to preserve part of that landscape. Besides the markers, the EJI is also engaged in an archival project of collecting soil from every location where a person was lynched in the state of Alabama. The EJI and volunteers take some earth from these sites and place it in jars labeled with the names of the victims. Both the markers and the soil-collection project acknowledge that the past is buried in us. It's shaped this land, sits on the surface of the earth, and runs deep in the ground.

Memorials guarantee nothing in terms of our shared future, and they will never eradicate the tendency to careen toward forgetfulness with respect to the past. But they have the power to trouble that tendency and disrupt our habits. With these markers, the past arches up to meet us, and in the same moment we are confronted with a new understanding of the present and a new sense of ourselves. But only if we are willing, only if we shift some of the burden, and change the way we bear it.

Francey Russell writes about art and film and is a PhD candidate in philosophy.

Here is another article, about the new SLAVERY MUSEUM which will soon happen in Alabama, again the EJI, Equal Justice Initiative, is the leader.

'It's Hard to Look Back': Why MacArthur Genius Bryan Stevenson Is Building America's First Slavery Museum

The From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration Museum will feature both cutting-edge technology and artists from Sanford Biggers to Elizabeth Catlett.

By Brian Boucher, Art World, August 31, 2017.

Countries from Germany to Rwanda have erected so-called "museums of conscience" devoted to reckoning with the darkest episodes in their history. At a moment of heightened struggles over the symbols of racism across the United States, the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is looking to add to that catalogue with a new institution whose name says it all: The From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration Museum.Scheduled to open next year in Montgomery, Alabama, the new museum will focus on telling a story that connects the dots from slavery through segregation to the well-documented and dramatic disparities within the criminal justice system today. In service of this narrative, it will feature artifacts, but also more high-tech attractions, including virtual reality that promises "to immerse visitors in the sights and sounds of the domestic slave trade, racial terrorism, and the Jim Crow South."The story will be amplified by a collection of work by an extensive roster of modern and contemporary African-American artists, including John Thomas Biggers, Sanford Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Titus Kaphar, Jacob Lawrence, Glenn Ligon, and Hank Willis Thomas.

New York firm Local Projects has worked with EJI to design the facility, which sits on the site of a former slave warehouse. Also in Montgomery, a memorial designed by MASS Design Group with EJI will focus more closely on the phenomenon of lynching.Founded in 1989, and led by lawyer Bryan Stevenson, EJI has a staff of about 50 and works to liberate the wrongfully incarcerated. (The nonprofit has been a major beneficiary of Agnes Gund's Art for Justice Fund, which was seeded by her $150 million sale of a work by Roy Lichtenstein.)The history of the organization is described in Stevenson's extraordinary 2015 memoir Just Mercy, hailed by the New York Times'sNicholas Kristof, who wrote that Stevenson "may, indeed, be America's Mandela." Stevenson has argued five times before the Supreme Court, and is a MacArthur foundation "Genius" grantee.

Recently, Stevenson spoke with artnet News by phone about the current status of America's reckoning with its past; where EJI's new institution fits into the landscape of museums of conscience; and why such a museum is long overdue—but at the same time has only now become possible.It seems as if we're reaching a critical mass in discussions of slavery and its legacy, with Steve McQueen's film 12 Years a Slave, the reboot of the television series Roots, the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Whitney Plantation Museum, a private institution memorializing chattel slavery. Do you agree that we're at a critical moment, and if so, what might explain this? What's interesting to me is that it's been only in the last few years that we've begun to even talk about slavery in a meaningful way. Slavery was the defining feature of America in the 18th and 19th century. It has shaped this country's economic and political and social life, and to some extent its cultural life. That we are only now beginning to see significant cultural institutions emerge to address that legacy is actually revealing about how committed we have been to not talking about this. We're just getting started, frankly.What do you suppose explains that tardiness?The legacy of slavery was so devastating that we're really just getting to a point where it feels possible to do so. When you've been enslaved and now you're being terrorized by lynching, you don't have the capacity to talk about these histories. When you're dealing with Jim Crow and mass incarceration and disparities in health and education and opportunity, it's hard to look back. So we're just getting to a point where it's sensible to put the struggle in historical context.

Are you experiencing any pushback from the African-American community? Is there any argument that we should focus on uplifting imagery?Not really. For a long time, the African-American community coped with the trauma and pain and anguish of this history by resolving to just look forward. Fifty years ago, it would have been harder to overcome that. And while I think that mindset has served the African-American community well, it's now clear that we are not going to make further progress without talking about these histories.Rather than pushback, in fact, we've gotten very strong support. Of course there has been some hesitation because African-Americans had never been allowed to think about what they want. They've had to think about what's going to happen to them in reaction by white people, from the dominant majority.I learned reading your book Just Mercy that EJI has received numerous bomb threats and similar intimidation. Even though I knew you came out alive, as you were driving through the Alabama countryside doing your work getting African-American and poor folks out of prison, I was scared for your safety. Have you seen any pushback from white folks and the larger community about this museum, or do you expect to?I don't think there's any question that after 150 years of silence, it's going to be provocative to see this legacy made plain. So there has been some pushback, but I just don't think we can be deterred.When we finished our 2013 report "Slavery in America: The Montgomery Slave Trade," we just wanted to place markers downtown at the sites of slave warehouses and marketplaces. When we proposed a project about that history, they [the authorities] said, sure, if you have accurate information we'll put them up. But then they retreated and said no. That would be too controversial.There are 59 markers and monuments to the Confederacy there. They are everywhere. But we as a society have been unwilling to say a word about slavery. So yes, some people will be challenged and provoked, but we have to accept that as part of the challenge.

In talking about this project, you mention South Africa and Rwanda and Germany as countries that have museums of conscience. I wonder what you are drawing from those institutions, and on the other hand what makes this institution unique?In South Africa there's been a conscious effort to educate people about Apartheid, and cultural institutions seem committed to this notion that we can never forget about the destruction created by it. There are sites everywhere that contextualize the new South Africa within the history of Apartheid. It's the same in Rwanda. People insist that you understand what people went through.What distinguishes all those countries is, one, that they're actually talking about their history, but two, that they have cultural institutions that are narrative in structure.The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg has a point of view and it is addressed culturally and artistically. The Rwandan museum incorporates human skulls in its structure—that's how powerfully people want to express their grief. There's no debate about the horror of the Holocaust, no distance from the ugliness.While I'm grateful to now have the NMAAHC, and I'm pleased we have the National Civil Rights Museum, we don't have narrative museums that tell the story of our history in a way that moves you from point A to point B.

What role do you see art playing in the museum?We're working very closely with a number of artists. There will be photography that we have created to try to humanize what slavery represents. At the time, no one was using photography to document slavery, so we don't have a visual record. We have the iconic photo of Sergeant Gordon, a slave who displays his back to show scarring from whipping, but there aren't a lot of images like that.We did photography with models in chains to create a visual of what the body looks like when bound with these emblems of bondage and confinement. We're creating films and videos that dramatize the domestic slave trade so people can have a visual experience of being forcefully transported from the upper South to New Orleans and the lower South. Video makers are helping us, through animation and through other forms, to tell that story in a visual way.But one of the most exciting parts of our museum will involve technology. You'll walk into a space that will replicate a slave warehouse. There will be pens that will look like jail cells, and when you peer in, a hologram of a slave, an apparition, will appear and speak to you about the experience of awaiting sale. We've uncovered incredible narratives about awaiting auction and the horror of the separation from their families.Technology allows us to create an experience you're only seeing in places like Disney. You can see the ghosts of a former slave warehouse. When you walk into the main section, we'll have language from catalogues advertising slave sales printed on banners. It will be a really powerful space.

September 3, 2017

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