Sometimes, sure, like any other man, he knew that he wanted a little more spice than Grace could give him, and he would drive over yonder and pick up a black piece or arrest her, it came to the same thing….
They rarely mentioned anything not directly related to the war that they were fighting, but this had failed to establish between them the unspoken communication of soldiers during a war. Each man, in the thrilling silence which sped outward from their exchanges, their laughter, and their anecdotes, seemed wrestling, in various degrees of darkness, with a secret which he could not articulate to himself, and which, however directly it related to the war, related yet more surely to his privacy and his past. They could no longer be sure, after all, that they had all done the same things. They had never dreamed that their privacy could contain any element of terror, could threaten, that is, to reveal itself, to the scrutiny of a judgment day, while remaining unreadable and inaccessible to themselves; nor had they dreamed that the past, while certainly refusing to be forgotten, could yet so stubbornly refuse to be remembered. They felt themselves mysteriously set at naught, as though no longer entering into the real concerns of other people–while here they were, out-numbered, fighting to save the civilized world. They had thought that people would care–people didn’t care; not enough, anyway, to help them. It would have been a help, really, or at least a relief, even to have been forced to surrender. Thus they had lost, probably forever, their old and easy connection with each other. They were forced to depend on each other more and, at the same time, to trust each other less. Who could tell when one of them might not betray them all, for money, or for the ease of confession? But no one dared imageine what there might be to confess. They were soldiers fighting a war, but their relationship to each other was that of accomplices in a crime. They all had to keep their mouths shut.
These passages and the others from James Baldwin, “Going to Meet the Man.”
Rachel S., who has been guest-blogging over at Alas, put up a post about lynching, racism, and empathy among white people. She prefaced her post with a very graphic photo of a lynching; it looks like the kind of photos that were very common as keepsakes. Many of those maintained in archives–a brutalized black victim surrounded by a grinning white crowd–have dedications scrawled across the back or corners. Some were made into postcards.
(The comments discuss not only the phenomenon of lynching, but Rachel’s right to post the picture as support for a lesson. I use these words to accompany this post because Baldwin’s portrait of this man and the child he was constitute one of the most incisive, searing analyses of racism and identity I have ever encountered. The story seamlessly joins this crime and the ones he commits in turn as an adult with the his married life and the celebratory atmosphere of the murder; Baldwin recognizes that they are inseparable. The child’s horror is his excitement; the man’s hatred is his passion. The story’s descriptions of brutality are as unswervingly graphic as the photograph. I was leery of including them in full for the reasons stated by the commenters on that post.)
It had been night, as it was now, he was in the car between his mother and his father, sleepy, his head in his mother’s lap, and yet full of excitement. The singing came from far away, across the dark fields. There were no lights anywhere. They had said good-bye to all the others and turned off on this dark dirt road. They were almost home.
A lynching was often a community event, like a picnic or a parade. It took place in broad daylight. It usually wasn’t attended even by the appearance of shame.
“I guess they singing for him” his father said, seeming very weary and subdued now. “Even when they’re said, they sound like they just about to go and tear off a piece.” He yawned and leaned across the boy and slapped his wife lightly on the shoulder, allowing his hand to rest there for a moment. “Don’t they?”
Rachel’s post focuses on one of the onlookers (although it seems strange to imply that she was not a participant): a little white girl who is standing on the left with her hands clasped in front of her, only a few feet away from the murdered man. She’s an avid spectator, but as calm and happy as if she were watching a three-legged race. There is no shame or regret in her expression whatsoever. She is glad to have been there.
The smoke poured up; the hands dropped out of sight; a cry went up from the crowd.
Rachel posted the photo for two reasons. First of all, she wanted to show what our history of racism really extended to, and what people who joke about lynching are really referencing. Second, she wanted to show the result of a lack of empathy; the level of suffering that it renders invisible, inconsequential. That girl looked at this horrible death and laughed.
“Well, I told you,” said his father, “you wasn’t never going to forget this picnic.” His father’s face was full of sweat, his eyes were very peaceful. At that moment Jesse loved his father more than he had ever loved him. He felt that his father had carried him through a mighty test, had revealed to him a great secret which would be the key to his life forever.
I think that the picture also serves to show that lynching was not merely the result of a lack of empathy, but a symbol of the anti-empathetic viewpoint held up as a positive ideal. Lynching was seen as law enforcement, as legitimate as any execution after a capital trial. It was a good thing to display that level of hatred towards black people, and to enact it on the bodies of black men. It was necessary. It was a moral obligation. There was no question of injustice being perpetrated against the lynched man; his race reversed those questions. It would have been an injustice–a crime against the people who killed him–to let him live.
The white people in the picture took the terror that his murder created, and the terror created by all the murders perpetrated before and since, as their right. Those people being photographed are illustrating their vision of a just society for posterity, and that little girl is attending a civics lesson. Her smile is not an unintended consequence, but the driving goal.
This was precisely the reasoning used by congressmen when they argued against federal legislation to end lynching: it is a vital part of the tradition of Southern justice. Not it’s not so bad or it doesn’t really happen or who cares if those people live or die. (Although those were also handy.) We need to lynch. Lynching is a good thing:
“‘Whenever a Negro crosses this dead line between the white and the Negro races and lays his black hand on a white woman, he deserves to die,’ segregationist Sen. James Thomas Heflin (D-Ala.) said in 1930.”
Whatever the fire had left undone, the hands and the knives and the stones of the people had accomplished. The head was caved in, one eye was torn out, one ear was hanging. But one had to look carefully to realize this, for it was, now, merely, a black charred object on the black charred ground.
That basic idea–that those people need to suffer, that we survive as ourselves because we make them suffer–hasn’t left us. It’s why people were squeamish about bringing Gwen Araujo’s killers to justice. It rose up in the discussions on HR 4437 and the Duke rape case. It’s the reality David Brooks refused to acknowledge when he argued that tradition taught men to oppose rape as anathema to manhood. As though that understanding of “morality” and “strength of character” cannot still shelter the Duke lacrosse team, as though it is not shining out of the faces of the lynch mob in that picture.