Updated: Jun 5, 2020
By Chris Victoria (Pen Name)
I am reflecting back on a road trip I took a short while ago. It was a pilgrimage to Selma, Alabama- by the time I got there it would be nighttime, the storefronts outside of the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge hauntingly quiet. My mind wandered to other times during that trip...
The road to Selma was long, unlighted, pure country. I had no music on. Yet, the thick electric silence carried the same stifling quality of the lingering chords filling the spaces between Nina Simone's rasping cries in "Strange Fruit."
Southern trees... bear a strange fruit...
Blood on the leaves... and blood at the root...
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze...
Strange fruit hangin’… from the poplar trees—
I glimpsed a yellow moon looming overhead, and a violent thought flickered in my mind- I had seen a squirrel's yellowed eyes bulging out of its head once, quickly asphyxiated from the crunch of a tire.
Is that what Their eyes looked like?
Protruding almost cartoonishly, eyes forever locked on a crowd of white people in pressed Sunday suits and glistening periwinkle blue pumps, mothers clutching babes to their breasts,
remarking how hot a day it was; giggling sons perched high on the shoulders of their daddies, pointing with the same curiosity of children at the state fair?
Do ghosts haunt the trees? The soil?
My mind flickers back to a tour through historic Charleston I recall taking with my grandfather and uncle one South Carolina summer. The tour guide sang negro spirituals to us, offkey, as we
stopped at several sites rich with Gullah and Geechee culture. We made one brief stop, with the guide offering little explanation of the history behind the place.
One of the most beautiful oak trees I had ever seen towered before me like a mountain. My sister gripped my sweaty palm and we ran gleefully towards the oak, and began to climb and swing from its majestic low-bearing branches. I was a Lord of the Rings hobbit, this tree was an Ent, this gnarled old man would come alive and speak in a grumbling voice that might shake the whole town at any moment. We chased one another around the tree, posed for pictures, hopped over knotty roots. Only when we got back on the bus, flushed and panting from our joyous playtime, did we learn that this grand 1,400-year-old oak tree was called the Angel Oak Tree, and carried a grim story. It had routinely been used for lynching.
I remember feeling blank, and then panicked, then guilty. I stared hard at my hands as if I expected to see bloodstains beneath the smudges of dirt and bark chips.
Where did the audience stand to pose for their pictures under Angel Oak? Beneath the mutilated black bodies dangling like an ornament above their heads? I looked at the picture we had taken and almost expected to see an apparition above my own head.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh Then the sudden smell of burning flesh—
I never looked at such trees the same again. The question would always linger somewhere in the back of my mind...
We would years later visit Montgomery's Legacy Museum, which had an exhibit that left me breathless. There was a wall of jars filled with soil from lynching sites, and each jar had the name of the black person who had been hung at that site.
The exhibit felt alive; it felt like if you opened the jars you might be transported back a century
or half a century. You might hear the peals of laughter and giddiness matching that of a carnival,
a sing-song voice chastising its child not to get too close to the nigger, a young black widow's distant guttural wails slicing through this sadistic scene like a knife.
You might hear the heavy,
broken breathing of a black mother, who sees not a grown man, but a sun-kissed little child at the end of that frayed rope. Electric silence would eventually crackle from the jar as the crowd dispersed, shattered only by the soft, raw creaking of a muggy breeze rocking this beautiful black corpse back and forth. Back and forth.
As the night trudges along, you begin to hear flies buzzing around the carnage like fruit left out on the porch, and a rotting sickly sweet smell begins to rise-
you close the jar- 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 the tree to drop Here is a strange and bitter crop— And I can hardly breathe- oh, how close I feel to the raw, ugly experiences of our ancestors, some days I feel that I can blink and see the world through their bulging eyes- is it that close? Are their lips still whispering that close to our ears, does my heart still beat for every second their heart never got to beat, yes- yes- I do still mourn for them, because I still love them, because their skin is my skin- it's a type of mourning that can be awakened by the smallest reminder. We as black people do just fine imagining the sickening terror black people lived through and continue to live through without ever seeing a single image because to be black is for trauma after trauma after trauma to be crudely stitched into the quilts of our existences. We haven't even enough time to recover from mourning one tragedy before the grief of another tragedy splits open the infected wound again. Yet in a country built upon systems of white supremacy and black oppression, our society is so frighteningly desensitized by black death that we have been forced to resort to circulating images and videos of brutality for the sake of demanding structural change. Is it not enough to know that innocent lives are being stolen from this Earth simply for the color of their skin- of course not- so black people are forced to live with the intense psychological damage of constant exposure to violent, uncensored imagery of beaten and brutalized dead black bodies spread over social media, some people sharing with heartfelt motives, while others share it with the same carelessness of a viral cat meme, fascinated masses clamoring to catch sight of this torture porn for reasons that match the reasons whites would show up to lynch parties in droves. Recently, a vicious post written by a white woman named Rachel Steenberg circulated on Facebook. It had an image of George Floyd with an arrow pointing to his nostrils. The post read, "So you're telling me this nigga couldn't breathe?" I cannot procure a single word to describe the appalling level of disconnect many whites have demonstrated throughout history when complicit in and exposed to black death. Slain black bodies are routinely dehumanized, regarded with a cool disinterest that is as sinister as the actual murder. But mistreat a dog, and suddenly a cause is worth their energy. Let black lives matter activists peacefully protest a cop killing a black person, and suddenly they want to offer their support to the oppressing party, with absolutely no interest in the individual that was murdered with the callousness of an animal. Meanwhile, in the wake of firey protests demanding justice for lynched black people, many whites have expressed no sympathy despite exposure to the imagery of these murders, yet made their voices heard when retailers were destroyed. I have personally felt a type of pained protectiveness bubbling forth whenever I come across imagery of a black sibling being lynched, a protective instinct comparable to someone shielding their friend's nakedness from onlookers who are pleasuring themselves to the sight. There are two resounding perspectives I have noticed among black activists regarding the virality of black death in the media. The first perspective is that this imagery is necessary to share and document in order to demand accountability and expose the corruption and hatred that continues to bleed through this country. In the ’50s, for instance, Emmett Till’s mother insisted that Jet Magazine print an image of her son’s mutilated body in order to provide momentum to the civil rights movement and elicit support. (14-year-old Emmett was viciously beaten to death, body constricted with barbed wire, for allegedly whistling at a white woman.) She also insisted upon an open casket funeral. “Let the people see what I’ve seen,” were her heartwrenching words to the funeral director. The second perspective is that there is a thin line between spreading awareness and providing content for voyeurs of black death. Black death has become a spectacle, and media outlets have demonstrated a horrific lack of respect for the traumatized families of victims. And the motives behind people sharing this imagery with no context is questionable. During the Jim Crow era, whites would show up to lynching sites, take pictures of themselves posing in front of black bodies swinging from tree limbs. Postcards were passed around to friends and family with the images of black people hanging from trees as a crowd gazed at them for their entertainment or morbid curiosity. These are impossibly challenging waters to navigate, and it's frankly disgusting that we as black people even have to have discussions like this with one another. We feel protective over imagery of slain black people, but at the same time are aware that society dehumanizes us to the point of needing to document the violence in order to inspire change because our words are never valued and black death is notoriously underreported. Yet these images are not revered or treated with the respect that is deserved, and often fuels racists who get off on our people being lynched. It is beyond infuriating that historically, it takes violent imagery to "prove" that the black community is being terrorized by white supremacists. It's infuriating that black bodies are so dehumanized, that racist white people are able to casually scrutinize videos of black death over a cup of coffee, and twist the tragedy around to somehow become the fault of the victims. "Oh, if he hadn't been..." "Oh, if she wasn't looking like..." "Oh, maybe if he had..."
And they wonder why, with all these compounding frustrations and whirlwinds of contradicting thoughts filling our heads while we still have to navigate our daily lives, go to work, go to school, pay bills, pay rent- our the response of some of us is to, as Nina Simone would put it, smash white things? We are full of a rage, anxiety, sadness, depression, that doesn't go away by sitting down and singing Kumbaya. Our siblings are being murdered right before our very eyes- it keeps happening and it's not going to stop happening, as we speak another generation of racists are being raised up to take the places of their parents. We have had to live in suspicion of the white people in our circles that have had absolutely nothing to say about the murders of black people in front of us, and abruptly remove people from our lives accordingly- we feel an ache in our hearts listening to family members of victims choke out words of sorrow- we are filled with rage when cops circle around and around our neighborhoods, flashing their sirens in an attempt to send a jolt a fear to a place where fear was long ago replaced by burning anger- To make matters worse, this society has the audacity to police the way we mourn, criticize the way we channel the collective existential exhaustion of generations upon generations of brutalized black ancestors. White supremacists do not have the power to silence us. Beloved, our loud, righteous anger will shake the very heavens, our rage has reached its boiling point, it cuts to the depths of our souls. Enough is ENOUGH. Can we be blamed for wanting the world to burn? To want to destroy buildings, to want to scream and weep shrilly and let the Earth tremble with our emotion? We have knelt, we have marched, we have sat, we have talked. And what has changed? Nina Pop did not die in vain. Breonna Taylor did not die in vain. Ahmaud Arbery did not die in vain. Tony McDade did not die in vain. Monika Diamond did not die in vain. Sean Reed did not die in vain. George Floyd did not die in vain. Eric Garner did not die in vain. Ashanti Carmon did not die in vain. Natasha McKenna did not die in vain. Muhlaysia Booker did not die in vain. Emmett Till did not die in vain. Michael Brown did not die in vain. Trayvon Martin did not die in vain. Marsha P. Johnson did not die in vain. We must usher in change in honor of our precious black siblings, in honor of all the fallen pioneers of the civil rights movement. A revolution is coming... something deeper than an election, something deeper than merely prosecuting a cop- we must collectively demand structural change to the foul narrative of this country by any means necessary. We must de-fund and abolish police who have served as agents of terror for the black community since their establishment, as well as dismantle every form of capitalism and white supremacy that plagues this country. Stop. KILLING. Us.