Forward written for Watermelons, Nooses, Straight Razors and Other Stories from the Jim Crow Museum
In 1983 I graduated from college with a history degree. My desire to study the past sprung from my belief that it held critical lessons for the future. The department teemed with passionate professors. The library shelves groaned with research books and periodicals. The curriculum offered more than I could squeeze into my course load. At the time, I would have told you the department lacked nothing. And yet in 2016, I am appalled by the limitations of the education I received.
This is not to point fingers at my college, which like most colleges and universities in the United States, takes its cues from a broader U.S. culture rife with an intentional and unintentional denial that allows for one-sided history telling and vigorous myth making. Though I learned about Christopher Columbus and the European context around his pursuits for instance, I did not learn about the history of his atrocities towards his own men or the impact his “discovery” had on Indigenous peoples. Though we explored the concept of bias in interpreting and recording history, never was I asked to consider whose perspectives might be missing altogether. Also notable to me now is the absence of heart that permeated my education. A simple question such as, “What would it feel like to have ships full of foreigners invading your hometown?” would have created a human connection that might have driven me to seek a range of perspective while reflecting on my own.
Reading Watermelons, Nooses, Straight Razors and Other Stories from the Jim Crow Museum offers a prime example of how crucial the telling of unglossed history can be. It is precisely the kind of material my high-class education lacked. Not only do the stories contained in this book add dimension to my understanding of the black experience past and present, it evolved my understanding of the white experience that shaped and continues to shape dominant United States culture and beliefs today. As I absorbed what I didn’t know I didn't’ know, new questions arose, questions that have opened both my mind and my heart.
As you read the pages ahead, I wonder if you, like me, will unearth questions about the present day impacts of unacknowledged actions that can only be labeled as terrorism? Will you ask yourself what it means to be human? And what it takes to be dehumanized? Will you wonder what the ongoing psychological and material costs are to have stereotypes of the black brute pulsing through the dominant United States narrative? Will you question what gets filed away in the heart and mind when glimpsing a black jockey lawn ornament? Or consider how many times you’ve used a word that retraumatizes someone in your midst? Will you wonder about your own capacity to otherize a fellow human being? In the end, will you lay the book down and mourn for our broken human family, divided and torn through the legacy of white supremacy? And will you then wonder: Where do we go from here?
Of all the issues and questions Watermelons, Nooses, Straight Razors and Other Stories from the Jim Crow Museum has raised for me, the most nagging is this: What drives some human beings to find satiation in cruelty and torture? It’s one thing to ingest a false myth that shapes a belief that black men pose a danger to society. It’s something else entirely to pack that belief with a supersonic charge of hatred and contempt, one so fierce that it justifies skinning, raping, bone crushing, flogging, dismembering, burning, and lynching. How might understanding the human capacity to otherize and persecute equip us to manage such urges and instead cultivate in one another empathy in our common humanity?
Watermelons, Nooses, Straight Razors and Other Stories from the Jim Crow Museum, far from a recording of an isolated past, offers connections to present day racial issues and images. Reading about Jim Crow era profiteering from the abduction and containment of black men, reminds me of the ongoing perpetration that exists today in the form of mass incarceration. Learning more about the pack-like behavior entangled in Jim Crow community lynchings, conjures images of baton wielding police, swarming a defenseless black man curled on the ground. The random selection of which black man might become fodder for ruthless treatment shakes me with the state of perpetual fear it necessarily creates. Justifying brutal and inhumane practices with a false narrative that “good” white citizens must be protected against the “bad” black man remains central to U.S. racial lore. Repeatedly, I felt the hypocrisy of the uninterrupted U.S. narrative about who is savage and who is civilized.
In addition to finding myself unable to divide the past from the present, I found myself unable to separate the damage done to victims and their communities from the sickness propagated in perpetrators and their communities. With each spirit crushing, life-ending act of terror lives on the damaged souls of perpetrators. That Jim Crow era individuals may no longer be alive does not diminish, in my mind, the toxic energy of our shared dehumanized past. One aspect of the suppression of real and detailed Jim Crow history is that it allows stereotypes and artifacts to take on lives of their own, perpetuating ideas that distort who people really are, thereby keeping us from authentically relating across racial lines. Another aspect of the suppression of real and detailed Jim Crow history is an utter inability to move towards the kind of healing necessary to live into the democratic ideals the United States espouses. For me, reading Watermelons, Nooses, Straight Razors and Other Stories from the Jim Crow Museum reminded me that 400 years into the “American Experiment,” signs of injustice are all around us, yet have become so normalized that they are seen as artifacts of an American past, not the markers of an open wound in search of a salve.
Instead, amidst cultural denial, mostly extreme racial flare ups grab national attention, and even then are too easily written off as isolated events as opposed to predictable symptoms of an unacknowledged, unhealed past. In 2015, Dylan Roof repeated the American racial tradition of swallowing whole the myth of the black brute and using violence to discharge the fear and rage it stoked in him. After falling for a barrage of online photos of white people purportedly killed by Black people, Roof stepped into the Charleston, North Carolina AME Church and assumed the historical role of randomly targeting and killing Black Americans – nine to be exact, worshipers who’d welcomed Roof into their evening prayer circle.
For white people, the Charleston massacre may have appeared to be an isolated act of violence, a lone wolf incident. For Black communities, however, it served as a traumatizing reminder of an uninterrupted pattern of white propaganda followed by violence towards Black bodies. Just as 100 years earlier D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation stoked and promoted white fear of Black men through false images, the website Dylan Roof stumbled upon stoked and promoted the same uninterrupted narrative. The promulgation of racial fear based on false characterization is as much an American tradition as baseball. The stories within Watermelons, Nooses, Straight Razors and Other Stories from the Jim Crow Museum bring me closer to understanding the roots of America’s fear-based, anti-Black mythology.
An idea that has long intrigued me is that all human emotion can be traced back to love or fear, those being the two fundamental emotions from which all others stem. Isn’t fear the emotion that both bred and continues to perpetuate racial hatred and mistrust? The degree of American divisiveness we are witnessing in 2016 is not just born of an inherent us/them tribalism, it’s a predictable outgrowth of a planted fear of other, of missing history, of fabricated history, of missing voices, and of a lack of emotional stamina to dig deep and root out the individual and collective woundedness that all of that has spawned.
Though Watermelons, Nooses, Straight Razors and Other Stories from the Jim Crow Museum might suggest a collection of isolated artifacts, in fact it offers insight to an epic tragedy born of white supremacist philosophy, and reproduced by good people unaware of hushed history. Mother Teresa once said, “We have forgotten that we belong to each other.” I’d add that we have forgotten that we were taught to hate and fear one another. We have forgotten that a requirement of fearing and hating another human being is a denial of one’s own capacity for compassion and empathy. We have forgotten that in the stew of hate-based emotions, there is no room for love of self or other, and instead a stomach-churning pit to be filled with contempt for self and other. Some may feel raising history as grisly as Jim Crow a dangerous exposure. I believe it is far more dangerous not to bring this chapter of United States history in to the light of day. For people young and old, of all races and ethnicities, understanding the world we’ve inherited is essential to creating the world we envision for our inheritors.