It took me a long time before I realized my family’s struggles had not simply materialized out of thin air — that though we have rightly never made excuses about our faults, they weren’t evidence of ugliness running through our veins. My father beat my mother. My maternal grandfather beat my maternal grandmother. Moochie, my hero big brother, murdered a man. My youngest brother Jordan is serving 20 years in a federal prison. A nephew, raised like a brother, is in the middle of a 25-year sentence in a state facility. Another brother is serving 16 years.
But I know now that a sense of shame convinced us to not speak too loudly about our struggles, only to fuel a cycle of violence that led to more shame. I’ve learned you can’t cure a disease you refuse to acknowledge, and it was not until recently that I myself did so fully.
As I prepared myself to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and The Legacy Museum in Alabama, now open to the public, I had a reaction I had not anticipated: a rage I hadn’t realized I still harbored, at the unbroken chain that connects slavery and lynchings to today’s unpunished police violence and my very own life.
I have long watched people perpetrate violence against black bodies, but in recent years many have joined me, as videos — often of police actions — have become so readily available. We do this as we pat ourselves on the back because of the gains we have made; indeed, in the wake of the era of America’s first black president. But while we may now witness these atrocities with safety and privacy, we nonetheless share much with those who watched Mary Turner in 1918 Georgia be hung from a tree by her ankles, doused with gasoline, set afire, her 8-month-old fetus cut from her belly and stomped upon.
Before I had heard Turner’s story in Patrick Phillips’ Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America, I didn’t know they had lynched us and taught us to hate ourselves for not being able to perfectly navigate a terrorized land soaked in slave blood. Turner was lynched because she demanded justice for her husband, who himself had just been lynched. Countless others died like this because they dared to try to vote, organize black laborers or were deemed “uppity” in their attempts to exercise their rights. Many black men hung from trees after being falsely accused of raping white women, or for merely speaking to or glancing at them in a way that white men deemed inappropriate. A twisted hallucination, born of hate, became a justification for murder. The rules between right and wrong were always morphing, intentionally illusive. To survive, we told ourselves that talking right or walking right or beating our kids enough to keep them in line would convince white people that we, too, are American, worthy, beautiful. But we were mistaken. So the shame grew, and we swallowed it.
But learning the Turner story, and others like it, helped alleviate my shame.
I know what my father did to my mother was wrong. I also have come to realize that society is steeped in institutional racism that is inescapable and shaped my parents in ways that we are still trying to recover from. My father was probably a two-year-old when Turner was being lynched in a county in a neighboring state. I didn’t understand that when I began despising him as a young boy, scared and helpless in the corner of the kitchen watching him beat my mother.
What must it have been like growing up in a country that hated you for possessing the wrong skin? That forced you to bow down to white boys and girls who routinely called you “nigger”? That legislated you out of an equal education and into the worst jobs and neighborhoods? All of it enforced by nooses and the backing of white neighbors and white businessmen and white pastors and white judges and juries and prosecutors and sheriffs and policemen. What must it be like to see that, to this day, those people still face no justice?
We do not listen close enough, or learn enough from, the stories black people tell about what they lived through and how it changed them, like how my last living aunt — all the others died young from a variety of stress-induced ailments — told me about the times they heard of black people “just disappearing” from our small Southern town, where black people were warned to not be seen in public after dark. Just a few miles from where I grew up, a bus carrying a group of black churchgoers broke down. It was less than two years before my mother was born. When night fell, a group of armed white men began shooting at them, forcing them to flee into a nearby pine forest. I don’t know if they were disappeared or if they successfully dodged those bullets.
For all we’ve seen change, we forget how much we are surrounded by those who remain understandably wary of who we say we’ve become. When I worked as a columnist in South Carolina for a daily newspaper whose readership was mostly white and conservative, elderly black people would call to check on me, speaking in whispers over the phone as though they might be overheard, to tell me why they feared I would be disappeared, too, if I kept on criticizing the white governor and other white officials. They were not joking. They had seen too much to dismiss what may feel to some like a remote possibility.
The museum in Alabama, as gut-wrenching as any ever conceived, is for all of us, but especially for them. They will no longer have to speak in hushed tones about what happened. Such an unflinching portrayal of the hell they lived through is public confirmation that their lives still matter, that what they survived was real, as are the lingering effects of the trauma.
They, like me, were taught in public schools with history books written by a descendant of a Confederate soldier who spent more time suggesting black people were satisfied in a Jim Crow South than exploring the decades-long aftershock of slavery and what followed. They, like me, have witnessed more than their share of violence. The lynching monuments can’t erase the rage and the shame and the fear that lingers. But by correcting the historical record, they allow a deeper healing to begin. I have felt it myself.