So you wanna talk about lynching?
OK. Let’s talk. A lynching involved a man, but sometimes a woman or a child, who was dragged from home, heels in the dirt, body contorting, convulsing with fear.
A lynching involved another man, this time, almost always a man, finding a rope and making a noose, or perhaps finding a rope that had already been made into a noose, for this was not exactly rare, in an earlier time.
It took a special kind of rope to hold the knot, to hold the weight. A heavy rope. Corded and coarse.
The knot took skill; the act was impulsive, but the details relied on practised technique. The genus, health and shape of the tree were important. Were the branches high enough? Thick enough? Healthy enough to accommodate the sudden plummet of death?
A lynching was bulging eyes and slobber and spittle. It took a mob, a rabble, a group of several people to carry out the deed. To hold the victim. To toss the rope. To necklace the rope. To hoist the rope. To keep it taut while the body fought and then stiffened and then went limp and sodden. Heavy like coal. Dangling like earrings.
A lynching was loud, for a mob is never silent. The act itself was audible: the rope chafed against the bark. It tore open the skin. It suffocated and gagged, crushed the oesophagus and snapped the neck.
It made water, involuntary and foul, trickling past the knee, past the calf and the foot. A lynching was a fight against gravity. Desperate. Futile. Listless. And gravity always won.
A lynching was an act of community will. A community that showed up dressed for the outing, smiling, cheering, hoisting their children for a better view, preening for the cameras, for there were so often cameras to commemorate the occasion with postcards later sold as keepsakes.
Postcards with swaying, charred bodies. Shoulders limp. Legs loose. Heads lolled backward in an odd contortion that made it seem that their souls were communing with God.
Lynching was the work of “good people”. People who held positions of stature and authority. Who went to church. Who taught their children the golden rule about Jesus loving all the little children. A rule with exceptions and by-laws and fine print. A rule that applied only to people with white skin. A lynching was meant to send a message: “Stay in line.”
This could be you or your son or your wife or your father. Your heart. Your pride. Your breadwinner. Your changemaker. Your dignity. Yes, there was a message: “We are powerful. You are not.”
A lynching was often accompanied by long-term amnesia.
The people behind those acts would eventually forget this history, forget that this is what transpired in the town square or tobacco field, forget that they were engaged in what would now pass as evil because, jeez, who would want to claim that?
According to the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, 4,743 people were lynched in the United States from 1882 to 1968. (Yes, 1968.) Of that number, 3,446 were black.
Lynching was a fact of life for much of America’s existence. It was the green light for decapitating the victim and the impulse to place a head on a stick, and then place that stick into the ground on a well-travelled road and leave it there until the sun or the birds or the vermin had their way. Lynching was sometimes not enough. Bodies were burnt and blowtorched and branded. They were gutted and skinned like animals. They were castrated, scalped, dismembered. It was the justification for human bonfires and dismembering bodies and turning toes into key fobs and skin into lampshades.
In one particularly gruesome case, Mary Turner was lynched in 1918 after threatening to swear out warrants for the men who lynched her husband, Hayes Turner, who was wrongly accused of a crime. She was eight months pregnant, but that didn’t matter. She was tracked down, captured, dragged to a bridge between two counties in Valdosta, Georgia, and hung upside down from a tree, ankles tied together. She was doused in gasoline, and her clothes were burnt off.
Had enough? The mob wasn’t done. One man used a hunting knife to cut open her pregnant belly. Her unborn child tumbled to the ground where it was reportedly crushed under the heel of a boot.
Even that was not enough. They pummelled her body with gunfire before cutting her down. She was one of at least 13 people killed in that rampage, and her name — we must say her name, Mary Turner — now graces a project dedicated to remembering that there was no justice served for these atrocities. And that we must understand how the long arm of this history, and the attitudes that fuelled it, still touch us today.
This is hard reading, I know. Many will not have gotten this far. I am not sharing these facts for mere sensation. This is our history. Our history. We will never fully understand how far we’ve come as a nation until we accept and acknowledge the spectacular abominations that passed as normal.
Do not trifle with this history. Not unless you are willing to understand the meaning, the weight, the horror, the ardour, the hatred, the stain, the special brand of evil associated with it and the deed it represents. Anything less is an attempt at distraction. That is desperate and diabolically wrong.
So if you want to talk about lynching, let’s do it. Let’s acknowledge it. Let’s face it, even if it turns our stomach. Let’s face it as the terror and the terrorism it was. Because to face it, and face it down, is a first payment on an insurance policy that perhaps ensures we will never see this again on our soil. If you are unwilling to do this work, and it is work, then leave that word alone.
• Michele Norris is a former host of NPR’s All Things Considered and the founding director of the Race Card Project
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