by Wanda Sabir
Slavery has indeed marked this nation. Its soot leaves a residue the best detergent cannot wipe away or wash out. Truth – bitter, the missing ingredient is hard to swallow, let alone see – yet this is what The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and by extension The Legacy Museum: From Slavery to Mass Incarceration demands we face.
It is not in your head or imagination that these atrocities to other people reside. No, when on the hill at the top of Caroline Street in Montgomery you enter the sanctuary and see West African artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo’s Nkyinkyim Installation sculpture of captured Africans – men and women and babies – juxtaposed with text along walls which remind one of a village thatch or clay, the steel like grey of the pavement or road covered in flint rocks along a curving grassy meadow.
We walk along the path towards these hanging planks oddly familiar. They are the size of tombstones, the kind that seal the grave – keep the body from floating off (rising again). If the reference to burial sites and graveyards escapes visitors for the moment, when we emerge on the other side of the hill to the area where we see the tombs – hundreds to be claimed by the townships where those persons listed once resided – the reference is strikingly clear.
If the idea is atonement and reconciliation, then so far, none of the townships has stepped forward to claim its citizens or, as EJI (Equal Justice Initiative) put it, “confronted the truth of its history.” Not yet. To claim a monument is to admit your county, your town has unsolved murders and killers among its residents.
The statute for murder does not go away, so why are Black people advised to “get over it” whenever we want to mourn, remember and seek justice for the dead or fallen among us? Why is it OK for Jews to pursue killers with the assistance of an international court, yet for these acts of terror against Black Americans there is no legal resolve or public interest by those in national or international power?
When El Hajj Malik El Shabazz took the plight of the American Black people to a national court at the UN, he was killed. The same is true for Martin King: When he took the racial justice for Black people conversation beyond this nation, he was killed.
The National Memorial, designed by Michael Murphy, co-founder, executive director, MASS Design Group, begins the conversation on race America has never had, yet needs now more than ever as the numbers of incarcerated Black men and women are greater than those enslaved, and the normalizing of such state acceptable. No. 45 has given white men permission to once again resort to public lynchings. Black America is in a state of emergency.
“True peace is not just the absence of tension, but the presence of justice,” Dr. King stated. Stevenson replies: “We remember with hope, because hopelessness is the enemy of justice. With courage, because peace requires bravery. With persistence, because justice is a constant struggle. With faith, because we shall overcome.”
The Memorial for Peace and Justice’s importance is rooted in its insistence on and highlighting of Black power, the power to resist, reform and survive. There is really no stopping us. Sankofa is alive on the hill amidst the sadness because we dare REMEMBER and, as Hank’s Black men depicted in the sculpted piece, continue to “Raise Up,” as Dana King’s three ladies (representing three generations) push forward an agenda in “Guided by Justice.”
As Stevenson’s text combined with Elizabeth Alexander’s poem, “Invocation,” Maya Angelou’s encouragement and Toni Morrison’s wisdom guide our steps we walk the labyrinth that is both literal and figurative Black life. The gardens in front of the museum where people gathered to talk Sunday afternoon are along a path that invites meditation and reflection.
I loved the wall made from bricks fashioned by Black men who were at one point enslaved. Walls are really powerful symbols and we all remember the story of the three pigs and what happened when the wolf tried to blow down the last house.
Is this the finale to America as we’ve known it? I just reflect on Marian Wright Edelman’s lockets with Sojourner Truth and Gen. Harriet Tubman’s faces on them, as she spoke at one of the excellent plenaries at the two-day Peace and Justice Summit. Facilitated by Michel Martin, with Gloria Steinem, I kept hoping she’d tell us about her choice in jewelry.
She did. Truth and Tubman give Wright Edelman, champion for Freedom Schools and children’s rights, strength to continue the work. She just thinks about these two women and she is encouraged and rejuvenated.
When we look at a monument and touch the unforgiving corten steel, it’s like structural racism and white supremacist ideals that shaped values that devalued Blackness and its melanated mankind. We remember that ideas, while fastened to structures which seem immobile and impenetrable, when the water hits them, they bleed like the rest of us; they dissolve into the ether like other ideas no longer acceptable.
This is the challenge the Memorial asks, that the 800 monuments ask, that the more than 4,000 African American men, women and children lynched whose names are engraved on these bars of steel ask of us: Make some noise! It is time to end the silencing shame.
Black lives matter here. Black people deserve to feel safe. When we think about the largest internal migration out, that is, the Great Migration in the ‘30s, ’40s and ‘60s from the South to anywhere else – north, east, west – it was tangibly connected to the racial terror lynchings depicted here.
Still haunted, some families are not ready to break the silence – this stoicism or unacknowledged terror is all that is keeping the pieces from shattering. It is hard to function broken, but to live in terror is brokenness.
To break Black spirit was the purpose of the lynching in the first place – to terrorize not just the family, but the community. In this way we would bend to the dominant culture’s will, living down to their expectations.
The Memorial uplifts the names of those killed … lifts the bodies until we have to lean back to see the names and the counties where the victims resided. I hesitate to use the term “victim,” because the reason why the men, women and children were killed points to something else: These men and women and children were free people at a time when free Black people were seen as a threat to the social fabric where whiteness was the warp and woof.
It is different in Alabama. The Confederacy lost the war, yet, predicated on racial terror and violence, “We the People” did not and does not include Blackness.
This writer was not invited to the press preview of the Legacy Museum or the Memorial for Peace and Justice; however, in the many articles published by the corporate press, especially those papers in Montgomery, the fact that the week chosen to open Monday, April 23, the Confederate Memorial Day, just illustrated the need for a monument to honor Black people killed just because they were Black.
The state holiday was one of the many ironies I noticed while in Montgomery. I kept thinking about crime scenes and how there were so many criminals with monuments or statues, street names and plazas. Though Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Institute’s work has erected multiple historic markers highlighting slave warehouses and auction houses and places of note throughout the city to counter the dominant racist narrative, who’s listening if the economics for Montgomery stay the same?
The historic hotel not far from EJI where Martin King would stay remains closed. All the money that came into Montgomery probably didn’t touch Black community, because I did not see any restaurants owned by us, nor was this highlighted in any material I was given to read.
The hotels I saw were all chains I’ve seen here in the Bay Area. Maybe the shuttles were owned by a Black company. I don’t know. I did see a lot of Black people working, young Black people working, but if the owners were Black, I couldn’t tell. Until we call those economic shots, then the Memorial is not complete.
We honor and continue their work. Though many men were killed for supposedly having a relationship with a white woman, more often this was not true and if it was it was consensual not rape.
However, the majority of the racialized terror was because Black men stood their ground, were smarter than white men, had more money or better business sense. Men were also lynched when they refused to see themselves as subservient. They saw themselves as equal to white men – maybe superior – and willing to die for it.
As I walked through the monuments calling names, I saw so many women’s names. I knew Black women were lynched but not the large numbers. I was surprised to see how many families were killed. Some lists looked like the terror was over a week, with multiple people lynched daily.
The stories these named and unnamed Black people tell just by their presence in the memorials cause one’s heart to stop in one’s throat. It is hard to witness.
I can’t imagine how it must have been for the child trying to remove his father’s boots once his body was cut down. The child wanted to make sure his daddy made it into heaven. He’d heard that you couldn’t wear boots into heaven.
Similar to the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings in South Africa, the steel monuments are a political statement that municipalities and their constituents can’t ignore. One headline asked the question, “What next?”
The Memorial invites conversation with strangers as one walks the sacred corridors where the bodies swing, lie in state. Talk on Sunday afternoon was for reparations for the families of the deceased, that the families whose ancestors were responsible for the killing pay restitution to the families harmed.
We spoke about EJI setting up a fund for such donations for the families. It could be an education fund, a medical services funds, a housing fund … whatever the facilitated conversation between victim and perpetrator’s ancestor. We also spoke about setting up a fund for indigent prisoners.
Not able to leave right away, many visitors gathered or sat at the entrance talking Sunday afternoon after our visit to discuss restorative justice practices and what facilitated conversations could look like. This would be an important next step, because most of the people walking through the Memorial were Black people and white people from out of town.
I met a woman who traveled all the way from Sidney, Australia. I met a lot of people from California. I would like to know what ordinary white Montgomery folks felt when they looked at the names of Black people lynched in their counties.
I went to a lot of cemeteries this weekend – from Africatown, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and then to Tuskegee to pay homage to Mr. Booker T. Washington and to Dr. George Washington Carver. We passed by the cemetery across from The First Baptist Church – also known as the Brick-A-Day Church – on North Ripley Street. Rev. Ralph Abernathy pastored there, from 1952 to 1961. It was one of the largest churches in the South. We also passed by the pastor’s home and Nat King Cole’s home too.
The River Front reminds me of the River Walk in New Orleans where the Maafa Commemoration takes place. This year is NOLA’s 150th anniversary; however, the quietude which permeates Montgomery and even Selma is disturbing.
It is a false peace.
If all these bodies can be aesthetically exhumed, then what else is there to uncover? As Stevenson says, slavery did not go away, it just transformed, adapted to new circumstances. This is the city where only enslaved Black people were allowed. If a Black person were freed, he or she had to leave town; otherwise, the papers would be null and void.
There is even a Confederate White House where school kids are taken on field trips. A Black woman is one of the tour guides. I wonder what she tells them … as I think about a more substantive use of the children’s time.
What happened at the South Carolina Statehouse three years ago is not happening in Alabama, where Gov. Kay Ivey passed a law May last year, which makes it impossible to remove a monument, rename a building or street which has been on public property for more than 40 years. “That includes most, if not all, Confederate monuments in the state,” according to Jaweed Kaleem, writing for the LA Times.
This means that the criminals will grace this landscape in perpetuity. “The law defined schools, buildings and streets as ‘memorial’ if they are ‘erected for, or named or dedicated in honor of, an event, a person, a group, a moment, or military service.”
She says to critics, “’All generations learn not only from our heroes and our greatest achievements, but [I do this] to ensure we learn from our mistakes and our darkest hours’” (Kaleem).
This is easy to say when one is not harmed by a system that perpetuates not darkness rather whiteness. The work of EJI continues with its National Monument to Peace and Justice and in its Legacy Museum. The stories we hear as we enter the slave chamber where holographic spirits tell us their haunting stories, stories not for the faint of heart.
These stories are only amplified when we listen to the stories of modern slaves, many still alive, escapees present in the form and shape of our very own Dorsey Nunn, executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, and Hamdiya Cook, chief operating officer of LSPC, who with other returning citizens, give testament just by their presence to the value of such a museum, such a monument, such a place founded by a man, Bryan Stevenson, who put the two together – mass incarceration and slavery – visually for all with eyes to witness and act.
Of course, the concept – “The New Jim Crow,” even before Michelle Alexander – is not uniquely Stevenson’s, but these monuments to lives brutally snatched from families in racially motivated terror killings is a soothing balm. The antidote began years ago when volunteers and family members of ancestors lynched began collecting soil from the place where the crime took place. Recognition that even the earth needed healing.
Between sessions at the two-day summit, April 26-27, we watched footage of these treks to public spaces where killings took place. Often, the soil collected in large mason jars might be the only tangible part left of the person killed. Spectators mutilated, chopped up, burned … carried off pieces of mangled bodies as souvenirs.
At the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, there is an altar with dirt from multiple places inside a glass monument. Someone placed white roses on the top of it. The altar or “soil monument” sits across from the water running down a wall. Here visitors are “invited to remember the thousands of victims of lynching whose names will never be known. So much of the Memorial is metaphor, a shifting metaphor … the Middle Passage … the Atlantic Slave Trade … the Mississippi River.
Montgomery, just like the prison cells and references to solitary confinement at The National Museum for African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., does not include a place for action-steps or networking with organizations – which it should, both nationally and locally. Fliers and postcards should be available as well as information about local or regional organizations.
For example, Pastor Kenneth Glasglow’s Defense Committee hosted “Stop the Legal Lynching” in 21st Century Alabama, May 9, 5 p.m. ET, a national call. Visit glasgowdefensecommittee.org or PastorGlasgowDefense@gmail.com He is the founder of The Ordinary People’s Society (TOPS). Rev. Glasgow’s freedom is threatened.
Other organizations are All of Us or None and the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People and Families Movement. I was surprised when I was in D.C. for the Millions for Prisoners Human Rights march, no literature there about the huge action that weekend. But the Legacy Museum just opened so I am sure in the future such can and will probably happen.
I have to confess, after visiting The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, I couldn’t settle into a place where I could experience the Legacy Museum. I didn’t want to read all the materials and I certainly did not want to write down all the information. I’d hoped the catalog would have had information about what the museum contained, but it didn’t.
For anyone familiar with what EJI does, you have already read the information in other places, which is what I liked about the Memorial and Legacy. If you missed a point in one place, it was repeated in the other. The connections are intentional and visceral, from the jars of dirt to the red bricks made by enslaved craftsmen to the Black bodies crucified then (1877 to 1950) and now. I did enjoy the art work: paintings and sculpture of Elizabeth Catlett and others.
Black men at Starbucks, Black woman at Waffle House? Remember Denny’s? Slavery continues. Lynching continues, but not for long. The Memorial is a way to collectively validate the worthiness of these lives – the 4,000-plus listed here on monuments, named and unnamed.
It is also a wake-up call to white America and to others who would strip from Black Americans their human rights that we will not stand for it any longer.
The Legacy Museum: From Slavery to Mass Incarceration is open daily, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., the Memorial, 8 a.m. until dusk or 5 p.m.
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 7 a.m. and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.