Sunday, September 30, 2007

Truth, Reconciliation, and Jim Crow 2.0

Double lynching of Abram Smith 19, and Thomas Shipp 18 --Lynched to death in Marion, Indiana August 7, 1930. Photo courtesy

Marion is 45 miles from my father's birthplace in northwestern Indiana. This happened the summer my grandparents got married.

LM's latest post on the Jena outrage brought back to mind a talk I heard Sherrilyn Ifill give back in June (and blogged over at Orcinus at the time). Ifill -- yes, she's Gwen's cousin -- is a civil rights attorney and law professor who was deeply involved in the UN-sponsored truth and reconciliation process that finally allowed South Africa to begin to let go and move ahead. In recent years, she's been bringing that same process to American towns that are trying to put this crap behind them for good. In the wake of Jena, she's got a few things to say that we all need to hear.

Because, see, the thing of this is: Jena and all the rest of its Jim Crow sisters exist for the same reason dysfunctional families keep mangling the souls of their children for generation after generation. The wounds don't heal; they just fester, and keep being re-inflicted over and over. And it goes on for just as long as people keep dancing around those stinking skeletons that have piled up so long in the family closets and attics that you can't even shove any more in there, and are forced to arrange them artistically on the sofa and the in the dining room and anywhere else you can stick 'em -- all the while pretending that nothing ever happened and they're really not there at all. Even the neighbors are in on the ruse. Anybody who dares to mention that your house is festooned with more skeletons than the local Elks Lodge haunted house at Halloween is, by definition, too tacky to understand the aesthetic, and probably a Threat To Our Way of Life, and maybe even at risk of joining the Ghost Party in the attic themselves.

Ifill's job is to get the black and white folks in places like Jena to drag their skeletons out into the street, and start telling each other their stories. Because -- as those of us who are suddenly aware of the deeper meanings of green houses and campus shade trees are disgusted to learn -- the residents of these town, both black and white, still carry the scars of those decades like it all happened last week. Faulkner called it true when he said of the South, "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past."

Ifill says these things are never going to be past until those old haints are finally called out by name in public, then laid to a dignified rest. And denial and threats and bogeyman stories told to children (like little LM and his Uncle R.) and pretending that "we don't do that kind of thing around here anymore" aren't gonna be the way any of this finally ends.

Working on voting rights cases in the South, Ifill found it peculiar that the black folks she talked to remembered every detail of ancient acts of Jim Crow violence in their towns as vividly as LM's family remembers the ethnic cleansing of Wilmington in 1898. "Everywhere I worked, I heard from my clients about lynchings," she said. "Invariably, they'd tell me about some horrific act of racial terrorism that had happened in the past." Even in places that hadn't seen a lynching since the 1930s, Ifill found that the current black residents had shared memories that were still as fresh as if it had all happened yesterday.

"When I spoke with my [African-American] clients, I deliberately used the word "memories" -- even though my clients often weren't even alive when these things happened," Ifill said. "Still, I discovered that they 'remembered' details in great detail. They'd heard the stories directly from their parents as tales of how to survive life in the towns they lived in." These "memories" were invariably extremely vivid, recalled with such specificity-- where the bodies were found, how the corpses looked -- that even people born years after the event thought they'd been there themselves, even though they knew it wasn't possible." LM's account of his Uncle R's "memories" are right in line with this: those of us who are confronting this for the first time need to know that these stories are common as gospel among African-Americans with rural roots.

Predictably, the whites in town "remembered" things so differently that they might as well have been talking about an entirely different set of events. Ifill found that they had conveniently vague memories, even if they or their kin had been actual witnesses to the lynching. (No: make that especially if they or their kin had been present, and even more so if they'd actually participated.) The differences were stunning. "Nobody knew anybody involved. Usually, the lynch mob comprised 'people from the next county' or 'over the state line' -- people not from around here." (Always, of course, the people from the next county would point the finger right back.) Even when photos were available -- and, see above, photos with discernible faces were very often available -- nobody recognized anybody. "They closed ranks, and never opened them," explained Ifill. "The lynching was not really about their community, so there was nothing to talk about."

Ifill saw this same denial at work when she was in South Africa trying to catalog the crimes of apartheid. "I couldn't find anyone who'd supported the regime. Either they didn't remember, or they didn't know -- it was just all very vague. Whites were living in a fantasy that they didn't know." In South Africa, the truth and reconciliation process demanded that people let go of these fantasies, and deal in facts. The process provided a structured way for blacks and whites to share their memories, name names, agree on a full official record of what had happened, publicly acknowledge that history, settle accounts, restore some basic trust, and then figure out how to move forward together.

And they did it -- because they understood their future as a nation depended on it.

Unfortunately, Ifill says she has yet to see anything like that South African brand of courage and candor anywhere in the US; but she believes is absolutely critical if healing is to occur. When you count us what racism has cost this country in the past -- and stands to cost it in the future -- it's not an overstatement to say that our future as a nation depends on it, too.

Breaking the silence is the first and hardest step. Acts of racial terrorism set up an instant curtain of silence between a town's black and white communities. In the days and weeks after a lynching or purging, it was typical that neither community would speak about it out loud -- even among themselves. Blacks would whisper the details to their children as a warning, which perpetuated the horrific memories for generations. On the white side of town, silence brought deniability, safety from prosecution, and sweet insulation from the hard truth that their civil Christian town could also be beastly and lawless. Newspapers would refuse to report on these events entirely: Ifill quoted one Maryland newspaper advising its readers to "return to normal" as soon as possible after a 1932 lynching -- without even mentioning that anything "abnormal" had occurred.

The silence continued into the churches. In both black and white congregations, nothing would be said on Sunday. White clergy would not challenge the immorality of lynching. Usually, ministers were adamant about not mentioning events at all, especially if their own members had been involved. (They were often in denial about their members' participation.) But black ministers wouldn't like to talk about it, either. Ifill recalled one black minister whose only comment the Sunday after a lynching was a short acknowledgement that "the community has suffered a strain."

And the strain lingers far longer and more strongly than most of us can even imagine. "Trying to talk about these events takes a lot of courage," said Ifill. She knows people who've tried to get these conversations going in recent years, and paid a terrible social price for it. Invariably, opening these conversations -- even after many decades and generations have passed -- deeply, seriously pisses people off. "Sharing the stories means pulling the scabs off. You need to provide psychological support to help people deal with what gets stirred up. It complicates the process, but it's part of it."

Even so: finding the courage to look the truth in the eyes and not blink is absolutely necessary for any kind of healing to occur. Because nothing is going to change until we change the way we tell (or don't tell) these stories. That's what's happening in Jena -- by sheer brute force, in that case -- and it's also what LM is doing when he takes his family's old secret stories and puts them out here on the Web for the rest of us to hear. Ifill notes that these conversations don't always have to be public: they need to happen within families, in neighborhoods, in churches and schools, between races, in private, and in public. The most important thing is that they happen. We gotta start talking. All of us. Everywhere. The ghosts lose their power to haunt when we start calling them out by name.

It's going to take a long time. The formal process of reconciliation will ultimately happen one county, one town, one terrorist act at a time. "I don't think we can have a national conversation on race," Ifill mused. "But we can have lots of local ones." And by "lots," she means thousands, because these stories are everywhere -- not just in the South, but as far north as the covenanted communities of Connecticut and as far west as the logging towns of the Pacific coast and the plantations of Hawaii.

"In any town you recall with some nostalgia, there's most likely some alternative story about your town you haven't heard," Ifill points out, holding up Bill Clinton's home town of Hope, Arkansas as one example. "Hope was the lynching capital of the entire south. I wonder if Bill Clinton's mother knew that?" Of course, the glowing stories of "A Town Called Hope" that accompanied the cultivation of Bill Clinton's personal legend never included this fact. Ifill muses: "I have to wonder: when do we start talking about this?"

Ifill's experiences in South Africa also convinced her that local institutions usually played a huge (but often unacknowledged) role in perpetuating the violence. Churches and businesses, cops and prisons, lawyers and judges, and doctors and hospitals all supported the infrastructure of apartheid. Healing was not possible until these institutions were brought into the conversation, examined their roles, and began to actively find ways to restore the trust they'd lost with the country's black population.

Likewise: Jim Crow was perpetuated through local crimes committed by specific individuals. Allowing people to keep diffusing the responsibility behind that curtain of silence will not heal the wounds. African-Americans are no less wary of both public and private institutions; restoring this broken trust needs to be one of the goals of reconciliation.

And somewhere along the line, we also need to recognize and accept the ways in which these experiences made our grandparents -- both white and black -- the way they are. "Many small-town Americans harbor experiences they've had to swallow and get on with. Truth and reconciliation is largely about putting down those burdens," says Ifill. The process goes more easily if we start by respecting and acknowledging the courage of people who went through these horrible events and survived. Sometimes it helps to have outside facilitators to start and guide the conversation -- people who can take the heat, help people work through the emotions, and then leave town when it's over. Ifill cites the Alliance for Truth & Reconciliation as one group that facilitates this process for communities that are ready to do the work.

LM touches on another of Ifill's observations -- the odd fact that throughout the South, lynchings more often than not happened on the courthouse lawn. Victims were often brought from jails many miles away to the county seat for the occasion. Ifill says, "This was a deliberate choice of venue -- a statement that 'we are in charge of justice; we decide who is guilty and not guilty.'" Lynchings, like all other forms of terrorism, are message crimes: this choice of venue sent a clear message to black communities across the south that the only justice that mattered was mob justice, and that appeals to law would be fruitless. (One of the lynchings she described occurred in the front yard of the judge's house: another message sent, this time to the judiciary, about who was really in control.)

What does reconciliation look like? For one thing, Ifill says, we need to commemorate these events. "This history has largely been erased," she notes. "There are markers for all kinds of things in small towns -- but never for these events. Reparation is about repairing the harm -- and one way to do that is to acknowledge in the public space that these things happened." Other commemorations might include annual remembrance days, community scholarships, and special exhibits in local museums.

It's probably not a coincidence that the last lynchings in the US occurred in the 1950s -- and that two generations have passed in silence, leaving the third one to begin the process of uncovering the truth and cleansing the wounds. This pattern is a familiar one to people who work with adult children of alcoholic or abusive families; and also those who have worked with families who were victimized by the Holocaust or the Japanese internments. The first generation survives, often in silence; to speak of these things is simply too painful to endure. The second generation is often aware of the terrible things that happened; but respects their elders' silence, even as they set about the hard job of reasserting the "normal" life of the family.

In all these cases, it typically falls to the third generation to break the silence, and begin the process of confronting the past and putting the ghosts and skeletons to rest. Since the bulk of overt racial terrorism against black America is now half a century behind us, that third generation is us -- the current cohort of white and black Americans for whom this old history is now just tiresome, and who are sick to tears when we reckon all that gets lost in the vast chasms still separating us.

In a way, the folks in Jena (and elsewhere) who are bringing us Jim Crow 2.0 are doing us a favor. They're forcing all of us to come in there with a bunch of lawyers, the press, and a crowbar, and jimmy open the conversation they've spent the past century desperately trying not to have. Now, finally, maybe we'll get to take a look at the ways racism went underground after the Civil Rights movement -- and dig that fetid shit up before it pollutes yet another American generation.

It's time for this to stop. NOW. We know the history of how we got here. We know that, starting in the 1880s when the black middle class first began to rise, the folks at the top deliberately and specifically set up Jim Crow to prevent to keep propertied whites and blacks from forming a unified front (which was, in fact, happening) that would threaten their political power. It's obscene, stupid, and infuriating that -- fifty years after the last lynching in America -- this simple, ugly racist crap still works just as well to divide us as it did in the 1920s. As long as we don't get ourselves over this shit, the Man wins -- and keeps winning. And we won't have a hope in hell of taking back this country until it stops.

Our ability to create a progressive American future depends, completely and utterly, on whether we can summon the will to confront the past -- to open up our overwhelming load of shared baggage, examine its wretched contents with honesty and courage, and then agree on ways of putting these things in their proper historic place -- always remembered but never perpetuated -- so we can all move forward together, shouldering a much lighter load.