During the short story “Big Boy Leaves Home” by Richard Wright, the title character and his friend Bobo are on the run after shooting the white man who killed two of their friends. As they run, Bobo says to Big Boy several times, “Theys gonna lynch us.” [1] In the end, Bobo is captured, tortured, and burned at the stake, although he is not lynched. This was, however, what passed for a justice system. No trial, no questions, simply the immediate demand for retribution.

Earlier this semester, the other second year students and I sat in our exhibition class and talked about different types of exhibits. Our professor showed us examples of some of the different styles, but the one that stuck with me the most was her example of a visual exhibit. She showed us a video presentation called Without Sanctuary that left all of the class shaken. The video, which has also been made into a book, shows postcards and photographs taken of lynching in the United States. It is an extremely graphic video, and it was something that I thought about several times after the class period was over. This week, the website that hosts the video was among our assigned readings, and again I find myself unable to forget it.

This is a video that needs to be watched. It is hard to think about our own past in a negative way. We constantly hear phrases like “back in the good old days”  when people refer to the lives of their predecessors. And while we should not ignore the triumphs we have overcome, forgetting or neglecting the negative pieces of our past is a disservice that we cannot afford.

This weekend, I visited the African Burial Ground, a National Park Service site in New York City. The site is dedicated to memorializing the African Americans who were laid to rest in the 6.6 acre burial ground. [2] To me, the site was all about memory, in spite of the fact that we do not know the names of any of the people buried there. The outdoor portion of the site, the memorial, is a beautiful and reflective space that still recalls the difficulties Africans faced in America. A map on the ground recalls the triangular trade system, and does an excellent job of including not only Africa but the Caribbean as well. To me, the most poignant part of the site was mounds marking the re-interred remains. Sitting on each mound were gifts left to honor those buried there; seashells, birds of paradise, and incense. Although we do not know the names of those the individuals that rest beneath those mounds, people still take the time to honor their memory.

We cannot forget. The lynching photos are grotesque, hard to stomach, and painful. But the victims of lynching are just as important, just as in need of memorializing as those who died and were buried in New York City. Forgetting, or neglecting to remember, simply because it is distasteful to discuss, makes us easy prey to erase what has happened, and puts us at greater risk for repeating the negative lessons that history has already taught us.

[1] Wright, Richard. “Big Boy Leaves Home” in Uncle Tom’s Children. New York: Harper Collins, 2009.

[2] National Park Service. “African Burial Ground.” Accessed February 14, 2012.

8 thoughts on “Remembering

  1. I agree that as Americans, it can sometimes be hard to look at our past in a negative way. The idea of “nostalgia” for the distant past sparks the question for me: How do we balance appreciation for history and the understanding that not all of that history is history to be proud of?

  2. I also think the “nostalgia” for the distant past is in fact, not so very distant at all. It still baffles my mind that I can (and have) asked my parents about segregation and racism because it’s something that they grew up with. I don’t think the past is ever very distant and I believe that looking back is a constant motivator for reminding us how far we still have to go.

  3. I think remembering is very important in order for American to grow into the society I someday hope it can be. It is very hard for me to believe that segregation ended less than 50 years ago, because I didn’t grow up in that society. However, I agree that we need to continue to remember that lynching did occur within our recent past, and that if we forget even for an instant, we are likely to repeat the errors in a history we are not proud of.

  4. I completely agree with Cate in her suggestion that our current culture prefers not to look at our country in a negative light. While I too am sickened by the images on the without sanctuary website, I think they are an absolutely crucial part of the healing process. Every generation will interpret these images differently. Any institution that allows the public to think for just one minute on the history we aren’t proud of brings hope for continued tolerance and understanding.

  5. It is very hard to talk about a negative history, especially when it is your own. I was taught that when giving critique it is best to sandwich negative feedback between two positive statements… could this method work for broaching a topic like this in society or do you feel that it would cheapen the overall affect of the message? I agree that we need to remember and we need to have conversations – what I am asking is how do we talk about it in a way that people realize it is relevant to them without making them too defensive to talk about it?

  6. I agree. We must not remember “the good old days’ without acknowledging its skeletons. Likewise, we should not turn a blind eye to the lynchings that are taking place today. In 1998, three white men tied James Byrd to the back of a pickup truck and dragged his body 3 miles down the road. Just last year James Craig Anderson was murdered by a group of white teenagers in Jackson, Mississippi. During the crime, one teen yelled “White Power” and others spurted racial epithets. Another was quoted saying “let’s go fuck with some niggers” and “I ran that nigger over.” Although people are not being hung from trees, or tarred and feathered (but who knows…this is a big assumption and I wouldn’t put anything past the ills of our society) it doesn’t mean that lynchings are not taking place today. For me, the past isn’t as distant as the onset of slavery, the turn of the 20th century, or the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement, it is as recent as yesterday. I know some Big Boys, Johns, Berts, Silas’ and Richards…

    ***I would like to add that I absolutely despise the n-word and any variations of it. To be honest, it makes to cringe to hear and see the word in print. I decided to include the above quotes to demonstrate how contemporary figures are confronted with the same vicious language and violence as described in the works of W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright. The way I see it, changing the language, especially in the instances identified above, undermines the historical and contemporary realities.***

  7. I agree with Cate and Haley in that reflection, or nostalgia related to our country’s history often makes people uncomfortable. When reading the post about “Without Sanctuary”, I remembered that I had only recently just seen this video. In our Exhibitions class, our professor Dr. Sorin showed us the video. I was not aware that lynching postcards existed, or that an online exhibit had been created from these photographs. Despite being confronted with the horrific reality of these images, I had trouble understanding how these could be made and mailed to others across the country. They reflect this idea current culture prefers not to see images that show a violent and disturbing past. Especially hearing the phrase “the good old days” reminds us that at one time these images and postcards might not have been as disturbing as we think.

  8. Difficult topics are just…difficult. While there are many wrong ways there is no particular right way to discuss such topics, but I agree that they need to be discussed. I think the best model for broaching these topics is the dialectic learning model used by the International Sites of Conscience. A facilitated discussion can lead to eye-opening epiphanies and also offers chances for relieving and directing emotional tensions so that there aren’t huge explosions of anger at the subject being discussed. The hard part is getting people involved in such conversations.

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