The Unexpected Nature of it All: The Legacy of Lynching in America

Before relocating from Brooklyn to upstate New York, I read and studied lots about Sanford Biggers’ upcoming exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. I read reviews about his works, and I explored interviews and videos about his methodologies, travels, and inspirations. Biggers’ exhibition was highly anticipated, and I must admit that I was disappointed to learn that I would not be around for its opening (nor would I be able to attend supplementary programs hosted by the museum). However, I am fortunate to share that I visited the city during the 2011 Thanksgiving holiday season, and I am proud to say that the first item on my agenda was to visit Sanford Biggers: Sweet Funk—An Introspective. The exhibit was all that I’d imagined and more. However, one installation in particular left a burning impression in my mind. My mind will not let me forget Bittersweet the Fruit, 2002; and every now and then I find myself pondering on its implications and the magnitude of the design.

Most recently, I was prompted to read portions of W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk, Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children, and Langston Hughes’ The Ways of White Folks. During my exploration of these texts, I was compelled to think about Biggers’ exhibition and my distinct response to Bittersweet the Fruit. The thread that binds the works of DuBois, Wright, Hughes and Biggers is their exploration of lynchings. These works build upon DuBois’ notion of “double-consciousness.” [1] And, in the words of Wright, these intellectuals investigate the “dual role every Negro must play if he wants to eat and live.” [2]

Bittersweet the Fruit featured a tree branch with a screen embedded into its subdivision. The video included a naked, Black male situated at a piano. Two headphones were attached to the tree limb. A segment of the installation’s label read: “…Shot by the artist in the summer of 1998, its creation coincided with the brutal murder, by dragging, of James Byrd, Jr., in Jasper, Texas. Grieved by the event, which shocked the nation, Biggers regarded the video as a kind of memorial to Byrd: ‘Actually my hope was to reclaim nature and the African American male’s entitlement to be in nature without the fear of torture or death.’”

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Guest viewing Sanford Biggers' Bittersweet the Fruit, 2002 (Credit: Ashley Bowden)

My friend and I approach Bittersweet the Fruit. Upon placing the headphones over my ears, and settling my eyes onto the screen, I realized that there was no sound coming from my earphones. At that time, I motioned to my friend to ask if she was experiencing the same problem. To my surprise, I turned to my friend only to discover that her headphones were attached to a rope that resembled a noose. I immediately removed my headphones at which time I also noticed a noose-like rope attached to my headphone.

I was shocked. It was surreal. Lots of ideas began to rush through my mind. I pondered on the arbitrary nature of lynchings, and the unexpected nature of the act on the bodies of “death-bound-subject[s]?” [3] Was this an example of the circumstances under which a lynching would take place? One minute you’re going about your business, the next minute your life is in jeopardy. I experienced a surge of discomfort—not because I did not want to think about historical legacies, but because I had not anticipated what I’d just experienced. I wasn’t prepared. But who was? Who is?

Reading the writings of DuBois, Wright, and Hughes took me back to my interaction with Bittersweet the Fruit. My experience with the installation caused me to engage the above works with a heightened sense of sensitivity. As I reflect on the sum of my experiences and studies, I can’t help but to think about how little life was valued by the mobs that lynched Black bodies for sport. At the same time, I am confronted with the realities innocent bystander faced—whose only fault was being born of African descent.

As museum professionals, what experiences do we want our audience to have? How do we interpret culturally sensitive material? How do we tell stories that encourage people to make connections within and outside a museum’s wall? How are organic experiences created? How can they resonate in the lives of visitors long after their visit?

 

[1] W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Penguin Group, 1989), 5.

[2] Richard Wright, Uncle Tom’s Children (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 12.

[3] Abdul R. JanMohamed, The Death-Bound-Subject: Richard Wright’s Archaeology of Death (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 2.

2 thoughts on “The Unexpected Nature of it All: The Legacy of Lynching in America

  1. Wow… this exhibit was utterly brilliant. I think in terms of how do we address sensitive material like this in the museum we should all take note from this artist. I think that the most powerful memory is one not expected to be made…

  2. We talk a lot about intentionally making our visitors uncomfortable, especially when referring to the Holocaust Museum. I always worry about finding the balance between creating an emotional response and pushing someone so hard that they shut down.

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