At some point in the course of February, check out a challenging and important online exhibition entitled, Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynching in America. Make this an intentional personal assignment for Black History Month. (I recommend you include the short video as you scroll the site.) I first came in contact with these photographs at the New York Historical Society some years ago and was totally unprepared for what I witnessed at the exhibit.
The walls of the display room were lined with small photographs of American lynchings between 1890 and 1930. Many of the pictures were souvenir postcards that had been printed by the thousands and sent around the nation through the U.S. Postal Service. This was a very disturbing, yet simultaneously profoundly compelling experience.
Why was I unconscious of the fact that thousands of such lynchings took place within those few decades, with thousands of people—including many children who had been let out of school to witness the spectacles—captured for all time, often in jacket and tie, gathered around a mutilated body hanging in a public place? And this haunting question: Why had there been such collective amnesia surrounding this truth (at least within white America)?
This memory came back to mind this week with the blackface brouhaha among Virginia politicians, and the conversations I heard among pundits and friends expressing some variation on “what’s the big deal?” Blackface isn’t the equivalent of a lynching, but historically they fed from the same trough, with the seeming lesser grievance contextualizing the bloodlust of the lynch mob.
Many Americans are simply ignorant of the history. This is a problem, a very big problem, since it’s indelibly imprinted into the American experience. In the spirit of loving our neighbors as ourselves, it behooves us to become informed about the continuing legacy of intractable racist behaviors, systems, and attitudes that often function below conscious awareness. Followers after the way of Jesus understand the necessity of doing this kind of homework, and as the old cliché puts it, “there are miles to go before we sleep” on the matter. Many miles. Many, many miles.
I will gladly walk some of those with you as companions along the Way.