It Doesn’t Get Easier: Writing about Lynching and Believing Something Else Is Possible

March 5, 2019 at 11:56 am Leave a comment


As a descendant of enslaved people, writing about lynching memorials is horrible. Sometimes as I’m writing my notes, I’ll re-read a passage about a lynching and the memory of it hits me again. I’ve read about so much killing and I’ve developed ways of putting much of it out of my mind. I can’t keep all this violence up front and still live my life with some joy. However, the killing is always there, just recessed. When I come back to the telling, it crushes. The pain doesn’t diminish. It changes. But it doesn’t go away. Actually, I think it’s worse when it returns.

Toni Morrison’s concept of rememory perfectly conveys this experience:

Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place – the picture of it – stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I do, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.

The picture is still there and what’s more, if you go there – you who never was there – if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you. So […], you can’t never go there. Never. Because even though it’s all over – over and done with – it’s going to always be there waiting for you.
– Toni Morrison, Beloved
This evil isn’t a sideshow act. I don’t share the horrors I encounter in the archive on social media because context is essential. Also in person, I don’t talk much about what I’ve found. When people ask, “How’s the writing going?,” I quickly assess their knowledge of my dissertation topic before answering. As most of these people don’t study this topic, I usually keep my responses superficial, administrative. It’s just about pages, timelines. We don’t discuss the weight. When this happens, I feel like a liar or at best an undercover agent. I remain quarantined because most of the people I know have no clue of the depths of this disaster and I’m pretty sure they don’t want to know. They haven’t taken on the weight of knowing it. As I’ve mentioned before, even at public events on the topic of lynching, people have told me that they don’t want to hear about lynching. I wish none of it happened. But wishing doesn’t change reality.
I often want to make the writing less painful by avoiding certain things. But I feel a stronger need to be a witness. Performance studies scholar Diana Taylor, among others, has discussed the role of witnessing as ethical engagement. I think she’s right. Being a witness requires commitment and maybe even a soulful engagement.
So I’m going to keep fighting myself to stay with the truth. Here in the writing, I can do the only things that are possible – identify the disaster and modes of care some of us have implemented to honor the dead and protect the living and envision possible better ways to exist.

Entry filed under: Art.

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