By, Jason O. Logan
I’ve only had a panic attack one time and that was when I went to see a traveling exhibit about lynching when I lived in Atlanta a few years ago. The display, called WITHOUT SANCTUARY, was held down on Sweet Auburn Avenue, the historical center of Black Atlanta, at the King Center which honors the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was apprehensive about going to see it because while I don’t consider myself squeamish, I don’t have a morbid fascination with scenes of death and carnage either. The exhibit was free, I was in the area, and I had knocked off from work early that day so I steeled myself for the horrors that awaited me and went to see the exhibition.
Different versions of the Abel Meerpool-penned classic, STRANGE FRUIT, played softly in the background of the area where the exhibition was held. Billie Holliday’s version is definitive but hers isn’t the only one. I’m particularly partial to the Cassandra Wilson rendition from her NEW MOON DAUGHTER collection, which was played too. No matter the version though, that lachrymose ballad has always been in my soul since the first time I heard Diana Ross sing it in LADY SINGS THE BLUES when I was about six or seven. Some things just burrow into you for reasons unknown. I found out why when I learned more about the history of this country, in and out of school, and how the past for good and ill affects my present and future.
The burning flesh
I spent about half of my childhood in a fair-sized town in the southwest corner of the state of Georgia raised partly by people who knew about lynchings and lived through legal segregation. My eighty-something grandmother who lives up here in New York after leaving home for good almost sixty years ago told me she grew up with two JC’s in her life, Jesus Christ and Jim Crow, and the only reason the latter didn’t kill her was because the former protected her. Yeah, it was that crucial.
As I walked through the setup transfixed by the black and white photos of human bodies slow-cooked over open flames or hung from bridges as examples to what happens to nigras who got too uppity back then, I thought about how it was probably only through the grace of God none of my ancestors ended up in displayed in one of those pictures. Not that too many of my elders were hellraisers. But it didn’t matter if you were a church deacon or a ‘shine bootlegger, a hard worker or a lazy no-account, an old grey-haired man or a babe still in the womb, if a white mob came after you with blood in its eye all that was needed to be the guest of honor at one of their lynch parties, planned or impromptu, was to have black skin.
I never asked my old folks about lynching or the Klan or segregation too much and they never volunteered that information either. My maternal great-grandmother was the most talkative one about the past but she always laughingly spoke about how her bad temper as a little girl always got her in trouble. Her husband, my great-grandfather, would just tell me I was too young to know about that mess and to go get his spit cup for his tobacco juice. My father’s mother, Grandma Fields, was always salty until the day she died but she never talked too much about the past. However, she always told me to watch myself around those folks across the tracks.
My old folks never said anything hateful about white people but I always noticed a shift in them when white people came around. A certain kind of wary alertness that was always cordial but ever watchful for anything to pop off. They never shushed my cousins and me around them but they seemed to make sure we were always close to them until the white insurance man left or we made it back home from shopping downtown at Belk’s and Otasco. Always wary, always watching.
I saw the image of Leo Frank’s broken body. Frank was a Jewish factory manager who, by most accounts, was railroaded for the murder of one of his workers, Little Mary Phagan, a hundred years ago this August. He was snatched out of the state penitentiary by a lynch mob and hung 170 miles away in Marietta, GA, just a few blocks from the apartment complex I lived in at the time. The mob did the work the state of Georgia wouldn’t after the governor had commuted Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment. There’s a plaque marking where the deed was done right next to a KFC franchise even though his final resting spot is less than fifteen miles away from me as I type these words.
I saw the cover of a magazine that had to have been well over a century old which was illustrated with the drawing of a terrified Black man in a yellow shirt and ripped, red pants tied to a post in the middle of a vaudeville stage with white men firing away at him with six shooters and shotguns. The drawing was so vivid to me that I thought I could hear the gunshots, smell the smoke from the barrels, and, poignantly, feel the naked horror their poor victim must have felt before he died. My knees started to shake with that one.
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
It became difficult to breathe looking at the postcards of lynching victims sent through the U.S. mail with cheerful greetings on the back of them talking about the barbeque from the night before. Many of the cards showed the dead surrounded by hundreds of people who came out to watch the entertainment. I learned in college that many lynchings were considered social events like an Independence Day jamboree or a big-tent church revival but having visual proof of this fact made my throat tighten.
My heart felt like it was going to burst my chest when I read about the lynching of the pregnant Mary Turner in 1918 in Valdosta, GA, about ninety miles from my hometown. Mary was a twenty year old whose husband had been killed by a mob after a white landowner was murdered by one of his workers, a Black man named Sydney Johnson. Mary’s husband was one of thirteen people killed during the ensuing riot which lasted a week. She was swept up in it after she threatened to swear out warrants against those who had killed her man.
Her fate is related as follows from the memorial website, The Mary Turner Project:
Consequently, Mary Turner fled for her life only to be caught and taken to a place called Folsom’s Bridge on the Brooks and Lowndes Counties’ shared border. To punish her, at Folsom’s Bridge the mob tied Mary Turner by her ankles, hung her upside down from a tree, poured gasoline on her and burned off her clothes. One member of the mob then cut her stomach open and her unborn child dropped to the ground where it was reportedly stomped on and crushed by a member of the mob. Her body was then riddled with gunfire from the mob. Later that night she and her baby were buried ten feet away from where they were murdered. The makeshift grave was marked with only a “whiskey bottle” with a “cigar” stuffed in its neck.
I had to leave after reading that. I thought my heart was going to explode from the stress of trying to keep from screaming in rage and sadness right there in the middle of the exhibit. I don’t know how long it took for my heart rate to slow down and my breathing to steady but it was a while. In this country, we live with violence everyday whether it comes in news reports, action movies, video games, or the stuff that comes kicking down the door in your personal life. The silent price of living here is that we become desensitized to all the real and pseudo violence. But seeing all that unadulterated hate and mayhem and murder broke me. It was too much to take in all at once; too much to look at from a supposedly safe distance of decades. This violence was right there, close to me as my heart banging against my chest from fear.
That fear was the realization that such violence is still with us in our modern times, only a YouTube video or a hyperlink away if we want to see it. Off the top of my head, I can list the names of men, women, and children who have been killed in the past few years and had their murderers walk. A little boy the same age as my son playing in a park across the street from his home shot down by cops. A man the same age as me strangled to death on a street corner by the police. A young girl the same age as my oldest niece shot in the head by an off-duty cop because he thought someone in her crew was pulling a gun when he reached for his smartphone.
Fearfully is no way to live life. Fear is a warning, an alert to let you know there’s danger ahead so proceed cautiously. Proceed with a purpose, face the danger and take action. Speak honestly and forthrightly, march, or grab a two by four and beat the hell out of the danger. There may be no lynch mobs like the ones from a century ago but the violence of those horrid deeds still exist to this day.
This country has too much blood at its roots to be so hungry for more. The strange fruit that bloom never hung from just southern trees. It was a national shame then, it’s a national crime now.
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
For more information about Without Sanctuary and The Mary Turner Project, please go to the listed websites:
Strange Fruit by Cassandra Wilson