Memorializing a Past Not Yet Past

“I am interested in how we imagine ways of knowing that past, in excess of the fictions of the archive, but not only that. I am interested, too, in the ways we recognize the many manifestations of that fiction and that excess, that past not yet past, in the present.” – Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being


The day you are born, you inherit your history. The Middle Passage, nominally the Atlantic Ocean, is also an ancestral graveyard to those who are born with the inheritance of the survivors of the transatlantic slave trade. In Christina Sharpe’s book In the Wake, she provides a few definitions of “the wake,” and each uniquely speaks to the ways in which the past resides within the present moment. The wake is not only what’s left over from the past, but also the process by which we, who are born in the aftermath, seek to imagine and reimagine the ways of life and being that were lost. This year, a unique and important development in the tradition of such wake work will be opened to the American public: the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The memorial, planned to open in 2018, is meant to honor the over 4,000 victims of lynching in America between 1877 and 1950.


EJI was founded in 1994 by social justice activist and lawyer Bryan Stevenson; the organization is collaborating on this project with MASS Design Group, a Boston based architecture firm whose mission states: “Architecture is never neutral. It either heals or hurts. Our mission is to research, build, and advocate for architecture that promotes justice and human dignity.”


It is Stevenson and EJI’s hope that their memorial and other subsequent instances or forms of public commemoration of lynching play an important role in the process of reconciliation, whereby our communities can begin to heal and grow through the recognition of their communities lowest, darkest moments.


Personally, I would argue against benevolent notions of reconciliation as it pertains to the collective remembrance of lynching, and all other projections of White Supremacy at the expense of Black lives and existence. To reconcile, as noted by the “re-“ is to bring things, or communities, or a nation, back together. This very word presupposes that there was ever a common sense of humanity prior to the race-based institution of slavery. And, considering that for the subsequent four to five centuries following the beginning of the Middle Passage were all about tearing Africans (a denomination that had never before existed) away from their past lives, any real reconciliation would only be possible if the diaspora could accurately re-trace their history to the first instance of displacement within their ancestry.


A lynching, as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is a verb meaning to “put to death (as by hanging) by mob action without legal approval or permission.” It’s also important to note that lynchings are not synonymous with hanging; lynching also includes beating. By my own definition, lynching is a tactic on the part of White supremacists to terrorize oppressed people—to strike fear in the hearts and minds of those who would seek to imagine realities, futures, or identities that did not uphold Whiteness as the pinnacle of human existence. This memorial, both in its intent and design are meant to counter the intangibility of Whiteness and provide a physical space by which to interrogate our past. As a visitor to the memorial, you are meant to bear witness to the names and places touched by lynching and, by extension, the perils of White Supremacist hierarchy, and to actively ground yourself in the past in the present.


The main section of the memorial is a square with a courtyard in the middle that is meant to take visitors “on a journey.” As one walks through the memorial, they will pass large, rust colored, rectangular columns meant to symbolize the bodies of lynching victims. The floor of the memorial gets progressively lower, until the blocks hang above the visitors’ heads. There are 800 columns, symbolizing 800 counties in which White Americans perpetrated lynchings. The names of the 4,000 victims EJI documented will be inscribed on the columns. The memorial will sit atop a hill overlooking Montgomery, Alabama, one of many cities still riddled with Confederate statues and monuments.

Outside and adjacent to this main structure, a duplicate of each column will be laid on the ground. This is the first piece of the memorial that is interactive; counties are meant to come claim their column and place it standing up at a lynching site—a physical enactment of uplifting and remembering the murdered. The second interactive piece, called the Community Remembrance Project, began in 2016 to ask community members to return to the site of each lynching, dig up dirt from the site, and place it in a jar labeled with the name of the victim, along with the date and place they were lynched. The jars will be placed together in an exhibit of the museum titled “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration,” where the sheer number of jars, their diverse range of names and colors, and the labels without full information will all work to reinforce the physical remnants of lynching in the American South.


In his own words Stevenson has said, “I think we want to sober people. There are cultural spaces around the world that do a very good job of creating a consciousness that this is a memorial to people who have been victimized in a painful and difficult way—the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and other sites of conscience like that that are very powerful. They create an awareness of a particular history. In Auschwitz and other places in Europe, you sense that, you see that. We wanted to replicate that for this site.”


Ultimately, lynching is merely one of the tactics White Supremacists have used to deter the spirit of the oppressed peoples of America. Whether it be the robbery and exploitation of Native people and lands, or the plundering of natural resources found in the Caribbean isles, the Americas, Africa, or South Asia, many the atrocities of our past have often been left without remembrance, representation, or wholehearted reckoning. American lynchings did not end in 1950—the last year of incidents recorded and memorialized for the project. Many lynchings have gone unreported as communities turned a blind eye to the de facto execution of people deemed criminal for being too black, too feminine, too sexual, too spirited, too rebellious, too… human.


“History is messy for the people who must live it.” Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past

We are living in history; today will become another yesterday, and tomorrow is another today in waiting. EJI’s national memorial is yet another opportunity for the communities of this country to make the past manifest itself in the present, in the physical, and in our collective social consciousness. The memorial, however, is not the end all be all for the process of wake work, which has to be even more various, in-depth, and transcendent than the atrocities which necessitated this work in the first place.

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