I was texting with a girlfriend Tuesday morning, trying to find time for us to meet up and talk. She nonchalantly mentioned that she had tickets to go to the Brooklyn Museum to listen to Bryan Stevenson talk about The Legacy of Lynching in which their would be a preview exhibit to expose us to the From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration Museum and the Memorial to Peace and Justice. Both are “housed on the site of a former slave warehouse in Montgomery, Alabama, located midway between the former slave market and the main river dock and train station where tens of thousands of enslaved people were trafficked during the height of the domestic slave trade.”
So, yeahhhhhh, I jumped on Eventbrite really quick to see if there were any more tickets left. There were, I copped my over flow ticket and later that evening attended the event.
I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I hadn’t had enough time to think about it.
Which was probably a blessing.
I had first heard of Bryan Stevenson two years ago when I read his book Just Mercy. Oh Lawd, that book nearly broke me. In it, Stevenson traced his journey as a Civil Rights lawyer who focused on death row cases, most of which took place in the South. He weaves his many cases together, as he tells the gut wrenching story of Walter McMillian, a Black man who was sentenced to die for a murder he didn’t commit. And even with all the evidence stacked in McMillian’s favor, getting him off of death row and out of prison took almost a decade.
Now that I think of it, my dedication to doing racial justice work was cemented two years ago, when I read Between the World and Me, Just Mercy and The New Jim Crow, back to back to back. That’s the thing about knowledge; you can’t un-know something once you know it, just like once you see something, you can’t un-see it.
I walked into the Museum at 6pm, an hour before the talk was to begin. As I walked to the exhibit, I passed a gathering of people in the outdoor space. Jazz was playing, wine was being served and there was laughter.
I was directed to the exhibit that was on the first floor all the way in the back. I walked through one exhibit to reach it and this was the image I was faced with.
My eyes began to water immediately. I wasn’t prepared.
The exhibit is small, a mixture of installations, videos, quotes, and images. And when you’re finished there is a place for you to write down your reflection and feelings and post it up for everyone to see.
I must admit, I had to numb myself a bit to walk through the exhibit. I was afraid if I didn’t that I would burst into tears and since I was alone, there would be no one to console me or worse yet strangers would have to.
I have a thing about strangers. The thing is, I don’t like them.
When I got to the reflection space, I wrote down (and I knew I should have taken a picture of it) that I wanted to honor Ida B. Wells-Barnett because she was the first anti-racist activist to trace and bear witness to the legacy of lynching. I also added that in all of my schooling, which includes 3 college degrees, I had never learned about her or truly learned about lynching and that I would make sure that no other Black child would or could ever go through all of their schooling without learning about Auntie Ida, Brother Bryan and the legacy of lynching in America.
I had my ticket to sit on the first floor and watch a telecast of Bryan Stevenson and visual artists Sanford Biggers and Glenn Ligon. I choose a seat right in front of the screen. I sat in silence with tears on the brim of my eyes as laughter trickled through the museum floor from the party on the other side. I had to endure this for 30 minutes before the discussion.
But luckily, my girlfriend who had tickets for the main auditorium, came and got me and helped me to get into the main area.
They weren’t actually checking tickets. You just had to show a ticket.
Sitting downstairs in the overflow area, I was surrounded by all Black people. We all sat in silence, with what I imagine were heavy hearts and tepid annoyance. Sitting in the auditorium, I was surrounded by all White people who were jubilantly awaiting the talk. I am making this distinction because this is always the distinction for me.
When faced with Black pain and suffering, we are paralyzed by it. I surmise because the faces we see in front of us are the faces staring back at us everyday in the mirror. However, it has been my experience that when in a space with White people, watching them come face to face with Black pain and suffering turns into an exciting expedition. They’re filled with anticipation; they can’t wait to see, feel, touch, smell, taste the pain.
Because they do not see themselves.
They see the other.
As I sat, I realized that all that laughter from the 1st floor had come upstairs. They were the VIP section, mostly White men and women who have a long relationship with the Brooklyn Museum. They had the first 15 or so rows set aside for them.
The talk opened up with:
When the video ended, the auditorium exploded with clapping. I was frozen. There was no clapping coming from my heart. Instead, I just looked around at the grinning faces and listened to the thunderous clapping that seemed to take hours to end.
Bryan Stevenson came on and spoke to us about the racialized terror known as lynching. He talked to us about the 4000 Black men and women lynched in America between 1877 and 1950. He explained to us that lynching wasn’t just being hung from a tree, but with great detail, he discussed how Black bodies were burnt, how fingers, ears, women’s breasts and men’s penises were cut off and handed to the crowd of onlookers. How White men and women and children came to celebrate the lynchings. They bought food and played music, they took pictures and vied for the opportunity to take home souvenirs.
He described how the bodies of Black men and women would be dragged around town, or left hanging in the town square on main street as a symbol of what was to come to any nigger who dared to try and self actualize themselves.
He talked about how the continuing sin of America is that we are afraid to sit in this truth. He explained how the nations of South Africa and Rwanda and Germany had faced their apartheid and genocides and had truth and reconciliation. They admitted their gruesome acts and horrific failures at basic human dignity. But not America.
We could barely sit in our truth, much less get to a place of reconciliation.
He talked about the importance of telling our story, the American story of enslavement, segregation, Jim Crow and mass incarceration, the importance of marking the places and honoring the lives of those murdered.
At the Memorial to Peace and Justice you will find 4000 jars with the names of those murdered and filled with the earth where their blood was shed.
4000 jars. 4000 families. 4000 stories.
Stevenson explained that lynching was about keeping Black people subordinate. That was true then and it is true now. The state sanctioned it then and they sanction it now.
When asked what justice looked like, which was the final question of the night, Stevenson explained that it looked like each and every one of us DOING something. That justice meant we can’t just sit by and watch the continuing racialized terror that Black people experience in this country and do nothing. He told us we had to get really comfortable with being uncomfortable. We have to have these talks and cover these topics and educate all people.
We have to stand and face our history.
It made me think about my PD last week. One of the presenters said we can’t waste time trying to change the mind of racists ie White people and that we should instead, get to the business of teaching our kids.
Bryan Stevenson begs to differ.
We must spend our time engaging in these difficult conversations, bringing it to everyone and I’m sure he would agree that we could do that and teach our kids how to read.
This event was so emotional for me. It left me thinking about how to build up my capacity to sit and experience the atrocities done to Black people in this country. Because you know, there is a lot of shame and guilt and fear wrapped up in facing our history. That’s part of the reason why teachers of the Diaspora don’t really teach our history in this country.
The truth is, we all want to get over it, move pass it.
But we can’t until we face it.
I’m going to make it my business to be in Alabama. May of 2018. I am forcing myself to face it and then to do with it what I know best, transform it for my good and for the greater good of our students and our people.
Make sure you go and check out the exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.
Make sure you sign up to the Equal Justice Initiative website for updates and information.
Make sure you read Just Mercy. Hopefully, it will help you have some mercy for yourself and our students, especially those who have done wrong.
Make sure you decide the roll you will play in all of our liberation. We can no longer stick our head in the sand and pray for liberation and freedom. We must all do our work.
Make sure you move from assimilationist to anti-racist. That’s a daily…hourly…minute by minute decision. And if you want help to do that: READ.
Next month we will unveil our booklist. But for now, Just Mercy, The New Jim Crow, Stamped from the Beginning and Between the World and Me.