Nov 30 2014

Coffins on Trees: Art and Protest in Chicago

I don’t remember if I called or Facebook messaged my friend Kelly. One morning, a few weeks ago, I woke up with the certainty that we would have to organize an event, an action, SOMETHING when Darren Wilson’s non-indictment was announced. There was no question in my mind that it would be a non-indictment (for reasons that I write about all the time on this blog).

I had an idea but it was inchoate. I needed help to actualize it. Kelly is one of the founders of the Chicago Light Brigade. She teaches direct action strategy and is well-versed in creating art for protest. Art making is definitely not my strength so I reached out for help. My idea was to create something that could symbolize the 89 people who have been killed by Chicago Police in the last 5 years. I knew that I wanted to incorporate coffins somehow. Kelly didn’t hesitate to help and came up with the idea to create a tree where the coffins would hang. At its base, she (along with volunteers) would recreate the teddy bear and candle memorial that Mike Brown’s supporters made in Ferguson.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee

photo by Kelly Hayes

The symbolism of coffins hanging from a tree and coffins hanging by a string is brutal testimony to racist violence in the U.S. It was a fitting symbol to incorporate in our action.

“Return the tree, the moon, the naked man
Hanging from the indifferent branch
Return blood to his brain, breath to his heart
Reunite the neck with the bridge of his body
Untie the knot, undo the noose
Return the kicking feet to ground
Unwhisper the word jesus” – Reverse: A Lynching by Ansel Elkins

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee

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May 23 2014

Image of the Day: Lynching

[Lynching, Russellville, Kentucky] by Minor B. Wade (1908)

[Lynching, Russellville, Kentucky] by Minor B. Wade (1908)

“This photograph is brutal testament to racial terrorism in America. The facts of the case are drawn from a small article that appeared in the “New York Times” on August 2, 1908, the same day the photograph was made by a local journalist. On the previous night, one hundred white men had entered the Russellville, Kentucky, jail and demanded that four black sharecroppers who had been detained for “disturbing the peace” be turned over to them. The men were accused by the mob of expressing sympathy for a fellow sharecropper who, in self-defense, had killed the white farmer for whom he worked. The jailer complied, and Virgil, Robert, and Thomas Jones and Joseph Riley were taken to a cedar tree and summarily lynched. The text of the note pinned to one of the bodies was also inscribed on the verso of the photograph: “Let this be a warning to you niggers to let white people alone or you will go the same way.” (Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art online collection)

Mar 19 2014

Poem of the Day: “If Only”

IF ONLY (by Lolita Stewart-White)

for Willie Edwards

If only it hadn’t been 1957
in a wooded area near Alabama, but it was;
or missing black folks hadn’t been looked for less
than missing shoes, and they weren’t;
or if only those Klansmen hadn’t gathered,
intent on finding a black man, and they were,
or if only they hadn’t stopped him on that gravel road,
or beaten him until they could see the white beneath his skin,
or marched him at gun point onto that bridge, and they did;
or if only they hadn’t said, “Bet this nigger can’t swim,”
or hooted and hollered as he fell from fifty feet,
or laughed as he vanished in the river’s moonlight, but they did;
or if only his death hadn’t been ruled suicide, and it was,
or his murderers hadn’t been set free, and they were,
or the daughter he left behind hadn’t had to live her life without him,
but she did.

from Rattle #39, Spring 2013
Tribute to Southern Poets

Listen to the audio HERE

Mar 05 2014

Poem of the Day: So Quietly

“So Quietly”
by Leslie Pinckney Hill

News item from The New York Times on the lynching of a Negro at Smithville, Ga., December 21, 1919: “The train was bored so quietly…that members of the train crew did not know that the mob had seized the Negro until informed by the prisoner’s guard after the train has left the town… A coroner’s inquest held immediately returned the verdict that West came to his death at the hands of unidentified men.”

So quietly they stole upon their prey
And dragged him out to death, so without flaw
Their black design, that they to whom the law
Gave him in keeping, in the broad, bright day,
Were not aware when he was snatched away;
And when the people, with a shrinking awe,
The horror of that mangled body saw,
“By unknown hands!” was all they could say.

So, too, my country, stealeth on apace
The soul-bright of a nation. Not with drums
Or trumpet blare is that corruption sown,
But quietly — now in the open face
Of day, now in the dark — when it comes,
Stern truth will never write. “By hands unknown.”

Feb 13 2014

Image of the Day: Lynching

The Reason in Crisis Magazine (March 1920)

The Reason in Crisis Magazine (March 1920)

Dec 07 2013

Image of the Day: Children in the Silent Protest Parade, 1917

Children in the Silent Protest Parade, 1917. (The Brownies' Book)

Children in the Silent Protest Parade, 1917. (The Brownies’ Book)

I’ve written about the Silent Protest Parade previously here.

Nov 17 2013

Image of the Day: Lynchings by the Numbers, 1906-1907

I think that numbers aren’t enough to convey the horror of racial terror & violence but I think that they help provide some context. Pay particular attention to the reasons cited for the lynchings. You’ll notice several accusations of rape which as Ida B. Wells noted were usually trumped up charges leveled against black men.

Source: Following the color line; an account of Negro citizenship in the American democracy, by Ray Stannard Baker.

Source: Following the color line; an account of Negro citizenship in the American democracy, by Ray Stannard Baker.

Sep 29 2013

Image for the Day: Lynching…

They used to advertise…

Lynching announcements. (June 26, 1919) - NYPL Digital Collection - Source: The Crisis. / 1919-1921

Lynching announcements. (June 26, 1919) – NYPL Digital Collection – Source: The Crisis. / 1919-1921

Jul 22 2013

An Anti-Lynching Letter in Support of the Dyer Bill (1922)…

Between 1892 and 1940, over 3,000 people, overwhelmingly black (2600), were lynched in the U.S. In the 1890s, black women led by Ida B. Wells-Barnett, protested lynching and gave birth to a massive anti-lynching movement. The NAACP made lynching a cornerstone of its racial justice campaign when it was founded in 1909. In the 1920,the NAACP began to push for federal anti-lynching legislation through the Dyer bill. The NAACP tried to pass the bill for 20 years and relied heavily on black and white women to push this effort. Women were central to anti-lynching activism. As Mary Jane Brown (2003) writes black and white women activists “headed committees, raised money, rallied supporters, testified in congressional hearings, and acted in key advisory roles in a cooperative interracial relationship (p.379).” Some of the key black women who led the anti-lynching crusade were Wells-Barnett, Mary Church Terrell, Nannie Burroughs, Hallie Q. Brown, Addie W. Hunton, Daisy Lampkin, Mary B. Talbert, and many others. Some of the white women who were anti-lynching activists included Mary Maclean, Harriet Stanton Blatch, Anna Garlin Spencer, Susan Wharton. Lenora O’Reilly, Mary White Ovington, Lillian Wald, Mary E. Wooley, and others.

Since 1920 was an election year, the NAACP tried to get Republican candidate Warren G. Harding to support the Dyer bill. Over the years, thousands of letters poured into various Presidents about lynching. Below is a letter from Ara Lee Settle to Warren G. Harding regarding lynching dated 06/18/1922 from the National Archives. The letter was part of a campaign to get the Federal government to pass the Dyer bill.

Letter from Settle to Harding, 6-18-192210998_2005_001

Letter from Settle to Harding, 6-18-192210998_2005_002

Ultimately anti-lynching legislation was not passed by Congress. Yet the activism and agitation around lynching and the campaign to pass the Dyer bill helped to put a needed spotlight on the practice. Women activists succeeded in reducing actual instances of lynching.

Jun 14 2013

the murdered and the mourned…

“I should write something to mark the beginning of the George Zimmerman trial” is the thought rattling through my mind incessantly over the past couple of days. But I fear that I have run out of words… I’ve written about both Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin many times on this blog. No more words are forthcoming. I’ve been doing my best to ignore Sybrina Fulton’s daily tweets about her son this week. Today, she wrote: “You don’t have to know me to know my pain, use my pain & my lost to stand up for something.” It pushed me over the edge and I felt compelled to call forth Trayvon’s spirit.

“the mysterious connection
between whom we murder
and whom we mourn… – Audre Lorde (Dear Joe)”

I’ve been preoccupied with thoughts about his soul but also our country’s collective one. Does Trayvon’s soul rest easy? Or is it caught in the space “between whom we murder and whom we mourn” like thousands of other black people who have been tragically killed over the years in this country? Audre Lorde has written that: “Our dead line our dreams…” Unfortunately, too often black children are more likely to embody this country’s fears and nightmares.

Across time and space, my mind travels to Baton Rouge, Louisiana in December 1912. Simon Cadors, a black man, is convicted of killing a rich white planter. He’s sentenced to hang. As he awaits his appeal, he is kidnapped from his jail cell by a white mob and lynched. His body is found hanging from a telegraph pole on Christmas eve. Around his neck is a placard that reads: “The inevitable penalty.” It’s a warning to every black person in Louisiana; it’s southern ‘justice.’

A hundred years later, in my mind’s eye I see Trayvon. He’s lying on the cold concrete. As I get closer, I notice a placard hanging from his neck that reads: “The inevitable penalty.” It’s a warning to every black person in Florida; it’s southern ‘justice.’

There is a continuity between Simon Cadors and Trayvon Martin. Both exist in the space “between whom we murder and whom we mourn.” Despair and hope are once again at war within me. Audre whispers in my ear: “Despair is a tool for your enemies.” I decide to search for signs of hope. I find it once again in the voice of our youth:

I tell ‘em listen
I don’t fit your description
I don’t think that I embody this picture that you all are depicting

Lamar Jorden is a Chicago poet, writer and rapper. He has been part of the Louder than a Bomb (LTAB) poetry festival and appears on this year’s LTAB Mixtape. His song “Listen” is an exhortation for his peers to define themselves and to reject the negative stereotypes that society imposes on them. Jorden has taken on Sybrina’s Fulton’s call to use our pain and to stand up for something. He is also concerned with questions that Audre asked in 1977 (many years before he was born): “In what way can we cease to contribute to our own oppression? What hidden assumptions of the enemy have we eaten and made our own?” These are questions worth wrestling with as we work to build the world that we want to live in; a world free of oppression where true justice is possible.