I Know Who Was Lynched

Picture3“That was another time.”

“My family wasn’t involved.”

“The guy probably deserved it.”

We have tons of ways of getting out from under responsibility for American racism–and we use them all. Especially those of us who benefit from the ills of the past.

We like to claim, as libertarians do, that we are only responsible for our actions today, that what went before makes no nevermind, as my ancestors once said.

But it does.

And it is the reason so many white Americans refuse to face the racism that made them what they are and that helps keep them (us) there today. We are not racists, we say, so racism has nothing to do with us.

But it does.

I am lucky. I know some of the details. The Civil War was my family’s. One great-grandfather’s Union regiment was left behind at Winchester, Virgina when General Sheridan was sent to cut off the last railroad into Petersburg–which resulted in the capture of a gread-great-grandfather, a Confederate soldier. In the part of my childhood in the south, I grew up under the heavy weight of statues of generals who had led some of my ancestors yet who had been defeated by others. I found the statues and their huge stone plinths oppressive, even at a young age, for we had also lived in the north, where there were none of these. I heard Lost Cause mythology about states’ rights while knowing that the real reason for the war was slavery. I knew that the war was not even over, not really.

Back in Ohio, thirty years, almost, after the end of that war, another of my great-grandfathers, a sheriff, tried and failed to stop the lynching of Seymour Newlin. He failed. He probably couldn’t have succeeded, but that doesn’t matter: Newlin died. I wasn’t there; it shouldn’t matter to my life.

But it does.

Many, many of us white Americans have ancestors who were involved in lynchings. Few of us know about it or are willing to look into the details. That was then. What our ancestors did in the past doesn’t matter.

But it does.

“I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something,” says Tom Wingfield at the end of The Glass Menagerie. Or, as Bob Dylan wrote, “The past was close behind.” It is, for all of us. We can’t cut today from yesterday.

Many of us white Americans are running as hard as we can from the racism that gave us so much of what we have today. Our fear of being caught by this past, paradoxically, makes us act as racist as our ancestors, for we know that the anger burning in the hearts of African Americans can leap out and engulf us. We don’t want that and try to believe that we had no responsibility for it.

But we do.

All white folk need to stop running from the past and to turn and face it. Only then can we begin to overcome the racism that both lifts us and oppresses us. And that makes us angry and miserable.

Because it does.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s