Fascinating stereoview print from the 1860s…
When I was creating the No Selves to Defend exhibition last year, I knew that it would have two anchors: the stories of Celia and of Marissa Alexander. As I began to conceptualize a new exhibition about Black women and state violence (with several friends), I remembered the story of Phillis, a newly emancipated young Black woman. I knew that she would be an anchor of ‘Blood at the Root.’
Harper’s Weekly described how Phillis was brutally and savagely beaten by a group of men in North Carolina in 1867.
Below is an excerpt from the Harper’s story tiled “The Outrage in North Carolina.” TW: It is very difficult to read.
“There has been no minor incident of late occurrence at the South which has caused a more general expression of indignation throughout the country than the whipping inflicted by a set of ruffians in North Carolina on a poor, defenseless, colored girl who had fallen into their power. No single act of inhumanity has more clearly indicated the animosity yet existing in Southern hearts against the former slaves; or shown how unwise it would be to trust the government of these people in the hands of their former masters.
The order of General Daniel E. Sickles approving the sentences inflicted on the perpetrators of the outrage, reviews the evidence and furnishes the following history of the affair. The General says:
“The evidence in the foregoing cases discloses a deed of lawless and inhuman violence. It appears that the daughter of one of the prisoners, having attempted to beat a young colored girl, met with resistance which became successful, and resulted in the chastisement of the white by the black. This unlooked-for reversal of a long-accustomed relation filled the neighborhood with consternation and rage. Couriers passed to and fro from farm to farm inflaming the temper of the people, and concerting measures to produce terror among the negroes. A meeting of citizens convened at a school-house near the residence of the parties. The accused were among those assembled. The magistrate, Jenkins, was invited to lend the sanction of his presence, and did so. Phillis, the young freedwoman, was sent for. Dragged before the self-constituted conclave of angry men, whom she had been accustomed since infancy to call masters, some of whom she now heard urging her incarceration, while one swore she should be hung, and all agreed she must be imprisoned and whipped, the frightened girl exclaimed that she had rather be whipped than go to jail. This was taken as the expression of assent which they desired. Some sort of writing was drawn up, called an indenture, by which Phillis having signed it, was made to bind herself as apprentice to one Mrs. Harmon, who thereupon consented that her so-called ward should be flogged. Quite enough was thought to have been thus conceded to the mockery of legal formalities, and the impatient assemblage, consisting of all the prisoners who have been convicted except the magistrate, hastened to execute the penalty awarded.
Phillis was conducted into an adjacent wood, where, at a spot some sixty yards remote from any road, she was halted and told to take down her dress. She not obeying with alacrity, one of the prisoners snatched it off her shoulders. Stripped to her waist, except of her chemise, she was then whipped by five of these men in succession, by whom, according to the testimony of one of them, one hundred and twenty-six (126) lashes were inflicted upon her half-naked body with rods three feet long and one-half to three-eighths of an inch thick. Her garment was cut through and through; blood run from the wales raised on her lacerated back; one gash in her flesh three days after showed four inches in length; the heavy blows fell upon her person at random; she was pushed, she was pulled, she was kicked in the abdomen; till at last it seems that one of the accused, an applauding by-stander, not utterly insensible to the sufferings and the sex of the wretched victim, was so far touched by the spectacle of her torture that the cry was wrung from him: ‘Boys don’t hurt her breast!’
Having satiated their savage vengeance, her tormentors, fatigued by their exertions, withdrew: not, however, without considering the proposal of one of the number to return and give her ten more lashes each to stop her screaming. Finally the poor child, wounded and groaning, was permitted to make her way to the house of her mistress, where for days she suffered, scarcely able to crawl to her unremitted task, or even to wear her clothes without pain.
In the revolting crime thus briefly outlined all of these prisoners are shown to have been eager participants. In the interest of outraged justice it is to be deplored that the perpetrators have been adjudged to undergo punishment so inadequate to the enormity of their offense.”
The sentences were as follow: Jenkins, the magistrate who authorized the whipping, was removed from his office, fined $25, and confined at hard labor for one month; Dunning, Cook and James and John Early were confined for two months at hard labor and fined $25 each; the other guilty participant, George Mitchell, was fined heavily and imprisoned for three months, the common jail at Plymouth, North Carolina, being designated as the place of confinement.
Phillis’s story is remarkable for two reasons: 1. it was published in a popular newspaper; 2. the men who were responsible for her savage assault were actually made accountable in some way.
On Friday, Blood at the Root will open. I hope that you will come out to see the exhibition. You’ll get to see an original copy of the newspaper article about Phyllis and much more. RSVP HERE.
I wish that I had time to regularly post here. This year has been one of the busiest I’ve experienced in some time. I have been running my organization, supporting several others, organizing campaigns, teaching, and developing new programming. Regular blogging has become a casualty.
Currently, I am working with a wonderful group of friends to curate an exhibition about state violence against Black women. The exhibition titled Blood at the Root opens next Friday August 14. You can RSVP HERE for the reception. The exhibition will run through October.
Yesterday on Facebook, I read a series of posts by a young Black woman. She was lamenting the fact that Black men are too often silent and sometimes hostile about addressing violence against Black women. She was also dismayed at some of the women who insist that raising the issue of violence against Black women is ‘divisive.’ At one point, she wrote in exasperation: “You would think as a black woman you’d be on your own side.” Her words are profound and sad.
On Tuesday night in Chicago, many Black women were on our own side as we lifted up the name of our sister Sandra Bland. Last week, my friend Kelly who is a local indigenous organizer reached out to me to ask if my organization would co-sponsor a Light Action for Sandra Bland as part of a National call to action. I immediately agreed and Kelly did the heavy lifting to organize the event.
I listened on Tuesday night as Black women I know and care about spoke about our erasure and about the silence that too often greets our suffering. Together we declared ‘no more.’ There were tears and song. There was rage and love. There was an insistence that we would MAKE our own lives matter because we understand our value. It was so heartening that nearly 300 people braved the humidity and showed up despite the late hour. We needed darkness for the action to happen.
I was in Cleveland this weekend to participate in the Movement for Black Lives Convening. As we were leaving to meet the bus that would take us home to Chicago, we stumbled upon a group of people demanding that the police release a 14 year old who they had in handcuffs. The police escalated the confrontation by pepper spraying several people indiscriminately. The cops did not care who they were spraying. We were all Black and it didn’t matter if we were women, men, gender non conforming, trans, adult or child. We were Black and they sprayed us as my friend Page said “like we were bugs.” Dr. Brittany Cooper was there too and wrote about the incident:
“While protesters were securing the teenager’s release, I was among a group of attendees helping those who had been pepper-sprayed – filling emptied water bottles with milk to treat the spray, holding hands and rubbing the backs of those writhing in pain, reminding them to breathe while I did the same. I won’t soon be over the horror and helplessness of that moment. I won’t soon forget the sound of Black people screaming from the effects of pepper spray, because they had stood up to protect the safety of a Black child. I haven’t stopped wondering how those activists who have been on the front lines since last August manage to be subjected to such violent bodily violation regularly.”
I am coming down with something (a cough and sore throat) and I have no doubt that Sunday’s chaos has contributed to my illness. The incident in Cleveland should remind everyone that we are in this thing TOGETHER and that ALL Black people are targets. When some of my friends were sprayed, I ran to get milk. Other women were tending to those in pain. Trans people put their bodies on the line by blocking the path of police cars. Black women lawyers were the ones directly negotiating with cops who were threatening to have them arrested. Black men were there too; helping to keep people calm and putting their bodies on the line. My point is that all of us were needed to successfully de-arrest the 14 year boy. All of us had a role to play. We needed everyone. And as Black women, we are always there for everyone. I think that it’s important to prioritize being on our own side.
There is a lot to say about the Movement for Black Lives convening aside from the deplorable actions of the police on that last day. I continue to process my experience. One thing that stands out is how central love (in its various manifestations) was to the convening. Love: not the sentimental kind but the Agape kind in particular. My friend Dr.Tamara Nopper recently posted some words by Sonia Sanchez that resonate for me in this moment:
The great writer Zora Neal Hurston said,
Fear was the greatest emotion on the planet Earth
and I said, No my dear sista
Fear will make us move to save our lives
To save our own skins
Will make us save other people’s skins and lives
So love is primary at this particular point in time.
Put on, what I like to call:
The sleeves of love
Put on the legs of love
Put on the feet of love
Put on the head of love
Put on the mouth of love
Put on the hands of love
And love love love love love love
Love love love love love
Because love is the greatest emotion on the planet Earth
In the coming days here in Chicago, a number of us are organizing a series of events to center the experiences of and resistance to state violence against Black women as part of Black August. And yes, for me, this is a labor of love. It is a litany for survival. You can learn about the upcoming events, actions, and interventions HERE. If you are in Chicago, hope to see some of you.
Below is a new animated video by Storycorps.
“Alex Landau, an African American man, was raised by his adoptive white parents to believe that skin color didn’t matter. But when Alex was pulled over by Denver police officers one night in 2009, he lost his belief in a color-blind world—and nearly lost his life. Alex tells his mother, Patsy Hathaway, what happened that night and how it affects him to this day.”
In this short film, Landau and his mother, Patsy, remember that night and how it changed them both forever. “For me it was the point of awakening to how the rest of the world is going to look at you,” Landau says. “I was just another black face in the streets.”
This afternoon, I facilitated a welcome circle for a young man recently released from prison. Due to confidentiality, I can’t speak about his specific experiences. I did get permission from him to share one sentence from the circle:
“My cracks are now gaping wounds and the bleeding is invisible.”
There were audible gasps when the young man spoke these words today. Gasps and some tears. The purpose of the circle was to provide support and encouragement. It was also to identify his needs and how those in his community might help to meet them. His needs are many and resources are criminally limited. I keep replaying this sentence in my head:
“My cracks are now gaping wounds and the bleeding is invisible.”
This young man was wounded before entering prison. He was in his words already cracked. After three years in prison, his cracks are wider and deeper. His assertion that he is invisibly bleeding is searing and frightening for both him and for his community. How do we stanch the bleeding? I now envision thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of walking wounded bleeding invisibly all around us. I am haunted by the image and paralyzed as to what to do.
Our circle today was an embrace of this young man to let him know that he is not alone. It’s a necessary step in a long process that cannot begin to prioritize his need for healing. It’s not close to adequate and definitely not enough to stop the bleeding. I’ve been thinking a lot during this current moment of increased attention to mass incarceration that too few understand the scope and scale of the problem. Those who can best speak to these are struggling to survive inside and outside the walls of the cages in which we confine them. Their families and friends are too often shamed and silenced. The stage is ceded to elite technocrats who don’t seem to care that “lives matter more than the data representing them.”
The parameters of the mass criminalization “debate” are currently being delineated and cemented. We’re allowed to talk about the ‘war on drugs’ and the importance of freeing “non-violent” offenders. Those setting the boundaries of acceptable demands are fully aware though that this will not end mass incarceration (not even close). Anyone who is serious about addressing the problem understands that we’ll have to also free many people convicted of violent offenses to begin to turn the tide. Importantly too, the anti-Blackness endemic to the criminal punishment system is glossed over with euphemisms like ‘disproportionate minority contact’ if ever discussed. The criminal punishment system helps to create and then feeds off Black people’s expendability. The system has always reinforced white supremacy and maintained the subordination of Black people. How can the criminal punishment system be transformed without action to uproot white supremacy? There’s so much rhetoric and smoke and so little action and substance. The young man in today’s circle and the thousands like him deserve better.
I’m sitting on the floor of my living room as I type and I am crying. I’m thinking about a 25 year old young Black man who has to borrow $5 to get on the bus that will take him home after a circle while he bleeds invisibly. I’m thinking about a 28 year old Black woman who has to reconnect with her children while she bleeds invisibly. I’m thinking of the 17 year old trans person locked up for suspicion of prostitution. We’re in a state of emergency and the elites who created the carnage are discussing which color Bandaids to buy for the gaping wounds. The people who created the problem are now loudly proclaiming that they are the best positioned to solve it. It makes me ill and so very pessimistic.
“My cracks are now gaping wounds and the bleeding is invisible.”
I don’t know how we’ll stop the bleeding…
Through my friend, artist Micah Bazant, I learned about an organization working with incarcerated children called Performing Statistics.
Last month, Performing Statistics shared some of the art projects that the incarcerated children they work with have been creating this summer:
“This week, at Art 180 we began our 8 week program with a group of incarcerated youth. Throughout the summer they’ll be working with an amazing group of artists, legal advocates, designers, and others to produce a mobile exhibition filled with their own creative visions for how to change this broken system. This week was spent mostly just getting to know each other but we ended the week by creating our own protest posters…each teen came up with a slogan and a hand gesture to symbolize their slogan (since we aren’t allowed to photograph their faces).”
Below are some of the protest posters.
My friend Dr. Ryan Lugalia-Hollon has written an article suggesting that in the urban planning field “public safety is rarely taken up as a sphere of concern.” He points out that it is important to take into account how policing and prisons have shared our urban spaces. Finally he introduces a terrific new mapping project that seeks to fill in the gaps.
Quoting from the article:
“In Chicago, where I live, is far too familiar with the New Jim Crow. On parts of Chicago’s West Side, nearly 70 percent of men between ages 18 and 54 are likely to have interacted with the criminal justice system, casting the long shadow of concentrated criminality across local households, schools, parks, bus stops and places of business.
Through a new website, Chicago’s Million Dollar Blocks, some colleagues and I show exactly how much the State of Illinois has been spending to incarcerate residents of these areas. As the site demonstrates, in the five-year period from 2005 to 2009, more than $500 million was committed to incarcerating residents of a single neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. That’s many millions of dollars more than will be spent on schools, housing, transportation, job creation or parks in the area.
Our site builds on a tradition of “incarceration mapping,” begun by Eric Cadora of the Justice Mapping Center. Starting with Cadora’s identification of these incarceration hot spots in the early 2000s, urbanists have started to think more critically about the impact of the criminal justice system on place.”
Check out the new website Chicago Million Dollar Blocks.
Yes I listen to George Jones
One of the recent additions to my prison artifact collection is an article by Isabel C. Barrows published in Harper’s Weekly in 1890. I was struck by the illustration that accompanies the article.
The following quote gives you a sense of the tone and tenor of the article:
“During the days of slavery there was comparatively little crime. The easy-go-luck nature of the uneducated and poorer whites was not ambitious enough to be criminal. The better educated were too well-bred to stoop to criminal life; and for the colored criminals the masters acted as court, judge, jury, and executioner. There was no well-developed ideas of meum and tuum in the negro’s brain, and if he sometimes inverted the possessive adjectives he met his punishment in the stroke of the overseer’s lash. If he were guilty of murder he might have to forfeit his life, and the State — some of them, at least — made good his loss to his master from the public treasury. Here and there a calaboose, and now and then a jail, comprised the chief provisions for criminals under the law, and State penitentiaries were almost unknown. […] Suddenly this stricken land finds six millions of people thrown upon it, of whom hundreds and thousands are soon culprits under the law. What should be done with them, without buildings to receive and house them? The States were at first almost palsied by the situation. When the proposition came to lease the convict labor it was regarded as the best and wisest thing under the circumstances.”
The article continues by pointing out the horrors of the convict lease system and recounting a visit that the author made to a convict camp.