Building Sanctuary

I have been following the progress of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice since the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) first announced plans to create it. America’s history with lynching is deep and ugly, rooted firmly and hidden from view, glossed over. We, as a country, turn our backs on this history … even as we nod and wink at the carnival spectacle of it.

I don’t know my family’s full history, have no idea if any one of my ancestors was lynched, but lynching is a power evil in my consciousness all the same. I learned about lynching when I was a child, was already aware of it by the time I made the mistake – at nine years old – of reading Uncle Tom’s Children. That collection of stories is a classic but  definitely not meant for fourth grade reading.

(Nine, of course, is years older than other children have had to learn about lynching. And they have learned through the experience of of dying because of it, of losing a family member to it, of being uprooted from their homes to flee it. I fully recognize the privilege in my own experience, in the fact that I didn’t grow up in a place where I needed, realistically, to worry about lynching. That didn’t eliminate the fear, but the fear never needed to be active, never needed to be daily. I am grateful for all of that.)

As a country, we act as though lynching wasn’t pervasive, wasn’t a tool used to punish, terrorize, and control communities of color. At the same time, we pretend not to see or understand the impact lynching had on communities and the ways that impact is still seen and felt today. And we pretend that we can’t see the way people use calling the police to “handle” Black people today as a proxy for rounding up a lynch mob.

In 2000, when James Allen’s photo exhibit, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America was touring, people expressed shock and horror at the images on display. That seemed, at best, pathetically disingenuous. Who did these people think they were kidding, acting as though they didn’t know about lynching, acting as though they hadn’t thought it was “that bad.” It continues to surprise me how surprised white people are when confronted with the facts of whiteness in this country.

The title of that exhibit and the book that followed referenced the painful truth that, even in death, lynching victims were mistreated – bodies mutilated or dressed, made up, and posed for photos. No sanctuary.

I thought about Allen’s work when I learned about EJI’s plans for the memorial. And part of what I thought – especially after I saw the artist’s rendering of the design last summer — was that finally there would be sanctuary. Finally, these murdered innocents would be held with dignity, with grace. Finally, they would be respected.

The design of the memorial is stunning and majestic. The concept of the double set of county markers is so bold and inspiring. I think about those duplicate markers, the ones that are meant to be taken away from the memorial and placed in the counties they document. The idea of having this way of bringing the monument home to the sites of the killings is so moving. But it will also be very telling. I will be surprised if more than a few of the more than 800 markers are claimed by their respective counties. Those few blank spaces at the memorial will tell a story, but the hundreds and hundreds of remaining markers will tell an even more significant one.

Of course, I want to be wrong. I want to be entirely wrong. I want each and every one of those localities to shock the mess out of me and collect their markers and put them on prominent display in the county seat. I want that more than I can say. It won’t actually mean we’ve turned a corner on race. There will still be decades and decades of work to do. But it will be meaningful all the same. I want that. But I’m not naïve enough to allow myself to expect it.

I was never able to see Allen’s photo exhibit. I waited in the block-long lines in the cold to get into the gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Waited three different times. I wasn’t deterred by the cold but by the knowledge that I couldn’t bear the photos. I knew myself well enough to know that, but still tried to force myself into the gallery. Three times. It was an exhibit that needed to be witnessed – by every white and non-Black/non-native person of color, but also by me.

Every time was the same: I’d get within half a dozen people of the gallery entrance – only twelve people were able to be in the gallery at a time – and I’d pull myself out of the line and head back to work.

Several years later, I bought the book. I came on it by chance in a Brooklyn Barnes and Noble. There was just one copy. I didn’t want it. I knew I’d never be able to look at it. But I couldn’t leave it on the shelf, either. Couldn’t leave it to be picked over, to be ignored. It felt wrong to pay for it, wrong to have money change hands over it the way professional photos of lynchings were sold as souvenirs. But I bought it. To this day, I have barely handled it, have only turned a few of it’s pages.

This history is so painful inside of me.

The closer today’s date came, the more news articles appeared about the memorial. I avoided most of them, read part way through a few, chose other articles for erasure poem source text as I worked through my National Poetry Month writing challenge.

But here we are, today, and I have to say something, write something.

I don’t believe I will ever be able to visit the memorial. Just as I can’t look at the pictures Allen collected, my heart and head wouldn’t do well at the Montgomery site. I’m not ruling out a visit, but it seems highly unlikely.

I won’t rule out a visit because the power in that space is undeniable. The weight and pressure in that pavilion horrifies me and calls me, too. Maybe one day I’ll be strong enough to under that display.

For now, I am grateful for Bryan Stevenson, for the Equal Justice Initiative, for the design, realization, and opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. This is something every white person needs to see, every non-Black/non-native person of color needs to see, and however many Black folks choose to see. And, maybe one day, something for me to see.

The source text for today’s erasure poem is a Times editorial about the memorial.

Building Sanctuary
(An erasure of a Times editorial about the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.)

Before you know it,
Hundreds surrounding you,
watching.
Lynchings carried out with impunity.
more than 4,400 killings,
racial terror
lasting more than seven decades.
An accounting
of those lost to history.
Devastating,
unreadable and unreachable.
A growing pressure
to include the role of racism
in American history.
Anyone in this country
has inherited a narrative
of racial difference,
a slow accumulation of evidence
leading to an inevitable conclusion:
America’s “reign of silence”
around slavery, lynching,
racial subjugation.

Deliberativeness,
attention to detail —
only lynchings that could be verified
by two contemporaneous accounts.
Such a damning exhibit,
a kind of liberation,
a kind of redemption.

To face up
to America’s brutal, racist past
with open eyes,
to understand how it lives on today.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every year, I choose a specific form and try to write a poem a day in that form. This year, I am trying erasure poems and I want to use news articles as my source texts. I’ve practiced a few times, and it’s already feeling difficult! We’ll see how it goes.

Here’s an edited version of the Wiki definition of this form:
Erasure Poetry: a form of found poetry created by erasing words from an existing text in prose or verse and framing the result on the page as a poem. Erasure is a way to give an existing piece of writing a new set of meanings, questions, or suggestions. It lessens the trace of authorship but requires purposeful decision making. What does one want done to the original text? Does a gesture celebrate, denigrate, subvert, or efface the source completely? One can erase intuitively by focusing on musical and thematic elements or systematically by following a specific process regardless of the outcome.
Also, Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest has some good points to add about ethics and plagiarism:
Quick note on ethics: There is a line to be drawn between erasure poems and plagiarism. If you’re not erasing more than 50% of the text, then I’d argue you’re not making enough critical decisions to create a new piece of art. Further, it’s always good form to credit the original source for your erasures.

Image result for national poetry month
Washington International School

In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

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