"They put him to death by hanging him on a tree." (Acts 10:39)
"The South is crucifying Christ again/By all the laws of ancient rote and rule.../Christ's awful sin is that he's dark of hue,/The sin for which no blamelessness atones;.../And while he burns, good men, and, women too,/Shout, battling for his black and brittle bones." - "Christ Crucified," Countee Cullen, 1922
"Southern trees bear strange fruit,/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,/Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees." - "Strange Fruit," Abel Meeropol (a.k.a. Lewis Allen)
(Students told me last year that they became conscious of this song from Kanye West's song "Blood on the Leaves.")
"Perhaps nothing about the history of mob violence in the United States is more surprising than how quickly an understanding of the full horror of lynching has receded from the nation's collective historical memory." - W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Lynching in the New South
"As Jesus was an innocent victim of mob hysteria and Roman imperial violence, many African Americans were innocent victims of white mobs, thirsting for blood in the name of God and in defense of segregation, white supremacy, and the purity of the Anglo-Saxon race. Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists--the lowest of the low in society. Both Jesus and blacks were publicly humiliated, subjected to the utmost indignity and cruelty. They were stripped, in order to be deprived of dignity, then paraded, mocked, and whipped, pierced, derided and spat upon, tortured for hours in the presence of jeering crowds for popular entertainment. In both cases, the purpose was to strike terror in the subject community. It was to let people know that the same thing would happen to them if they did not stay in their place." (James Cone, The Cross & Lynching Tree, p. 31)
In order that readers might attend to that terror, James Cone also writes of the dialogue between Reinhold Niebuhr and James Baldwin, a dialogue about the recent terror visited upon four young girls simply attending church. The context for their dialogue was the Birmingham Church Bombing of 1963 that killed four young girls. The two men were to discuss the implications of the bombing in light of Christianity. "Although the Baldwin-Niebuhr dialogue did not reveal sharp disagreements," writes Cone, "it did reveal different levels of passion in their responses, a gulf of emotional orientation to the racial crisis, reflected in the bombing. Baldwin, identifying with a powerless black minority, was seething with rage, ready to say anything to get white Americans to stop such violence, while Niebuhr, identifying with the powerful white majority, was calm and dispassionate in the face of what most blacks regarded as an unspeakable evil. Baldwin was relentless in his critique of white Americans for failing to live up to their own political and religious traditions about love and justice, even saying that Negroes were the only Christians and the only hope for the country." (James Cone, The Cross & Lynching Tree, 54).
Her is the dialogue examined by Cone:
"To a remarkable extent, the [Emmett] Till lynching would provide the spark that lit the fire of resistance in the Negro masses, inspiring them, as King said, to "rock the nation" and to demand their "freedom now." "This was the beginning of the civil rights movement in Mississippi in the twentieth century," said grassroots leader Amzie Moore. "It galvanized the country," recalled John Lewis, the Georgia Congressman and veteran civil rights activist. "A lot of us young black students in the South...weren't sitting in just for ourselves--we were sitting in for Emmett Till. We went on Freedom Rides for Emmett Till." Cleveland Sellars, another young activist in the civil rights movement, remembered: "The atrocity that struck me the most was Emmett Till's lynching...There was something about the cold-blooded callousness of Emmett Till's lynching that touched everyone in the community." Black people throughout the country were outraged that white racists would stoop so low as to lynch an innocent child. Roy Wilkins, the executive head of the NAACP, spoke for many: "It would appear from this lynching that the State of Mississippi has to decided to maintain white supremacy by murdering children."" (Cross & Lynching Tree, 66)
"Nowhere were hope and resistance more abundant than among women." (Cross & Lynching Tree, 143)
In his analysis of Reinhold Niebuhr, whose own writings on the social gospel influence many theologians, including King, James Cone reveals the problems associated with Niebuhr's gradualism; if not now, then when will justice become real? "Like most whites," Cone avers, "Niebuhr did not realize the depth of black despair because he did not listen to Malcolm X and other Black Nationalists, who were speaking at Temple No. 7 and in the streets of Harlem, only a few blocks away. Had he turned on the radio or television, he could have heard the eloquent and powerful voice of Malcolm talking about the limits of the bourgeois civil rights movement and its leaders. Malcolm was not interested in proximate justice defined by liberal whites. "The price of freedom is death," he told Harlem blacks. Niebuhr probably heard Malcolm (who could be in New York City during the 1950s and 1960s and not know about Malcolm?) and thought he was just another "crazy Negro." Mike Wallace's 1959 television documentary series "The Hate that Hate Produced" was a media event that few people with even a marginal interest in race missed. Since Niebuhr did not heed Martin King on race but preferred Faulkner and Carter, it is very unlikely that he would have listened to the fiery message of Malcolm X. "While Dr. King was having a dream," Malcolm told a reporter shortly after King's 1963 March on Washington address, "the rest of us Negroes are having a nightmare."" (Cross & Lynching Tree, 48-49). Particularly for whites, Malcolm X is neglected if not vilified. By no means does he receive the attention accorded Martin Luther King Jr. Yet the two learned from one another and died demanding justice.
A contemporary artist who identifies strongly with Malcolm X, adopting also the moniker "Red", is Jidenna. The word-play and commentary on race in America contained in his song "Knickers" directly mirrors the opening dance scene of Spike Lee's Malcolm X (1992). (Spike Lee attests to the difficulties they faced in the making of the film due to widespread opposition to his artistic biopic.). Artists like Lee and Jidenna have found ways to render Malcolm's life and message visible and audible for the contemporary world. Malcolm's witness cannot be forgotten and should never be neglected in our engagement with racism in America. For the purposes of our course, you could compare Lee's scene to Jidenna's video:
America continues to struggle with white supremacy, further accented now by gun violence. If we were in class together, we would be viewing Spike Lee's BlackkKlansman both to appreciate Lee's artistic abilities and to understand the kind of parables he offers us today about racism and violence in America. Here is an interview where he describes his film project during the Trump presidency:
The film helps us to understand what James Cone is writing about in chapter 1 of The Cross and the Lynching Tree when he mentions Thomas Dixon's work, especially The Clansman (1905), which D.W. Griffith made into The Birth of a Nation (1915). In his research, Cone uncovered horrific evidence of the impact this film had on white audiences, and subsequently on the kind of environments inhabited by black communities whose white supremacist "neighbors" read this material as a new social gospel. "Whites, especially in the South, loved Birth and regarded seeing it as a "religious experience." It "rendered lynching an efficient and honorable act of justice" and served to help reunite the North and South as a white Christian nation, at the expense of African Americans. After seeing Birth, one white man in Kentucky left the theater so excited that he shot and filled a fifteen-year-old African American high school student. By 1930, according to one report, 90 percent of white southerners had seen Birth." (Cross & Lynching Tree, 5). As scholars and historians have noted, it was first screened at the White House and "praised enthusiastically by President Woodrow Wilson." For some basic evidence that this relationship between white supremacy and the presidency is a problem under Trump, see the various reports from the FREE PRESS pertinent to Trump's rhetoric and relationship with David Duke.
Childish Gambino provides us with another set of artistic eyes on the ongoing problem of lynching in America in his wildly successful "This is America." Speculations abound concerning Donald Glover's choices of imagery, but it is certain that the hooded figure that is shot is carrying multiple references, including reference to Abu Ghraib. "When I heard about the physical and mental abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq," laments Cone, "I thought about lynching. The Roman Empire that killed Jesus at Calvary was similar to the American Empire that lynched blacks in the United States and also created the atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many white Americans seemed surprised and even shocked that such torture and abuse could come from the U.S. military. But most blacks were neither surprised nor shocked. We have been the object of white America's torture and abuse for nearly four hundred years." (Cross & Lynching Tree, 164)
"Black artists are prophetic voices whose calling requires them to speak truth to power. Their expressions are not controlled by the institutions fo the church. More than anyone, artists demonstrate our understanding of the need to represent the beauty and the terror or our people's experience." (Cross & Lynching Tree, 119)
"We cannot separate the cross from the Christian gospel as found in the story of Jesus and as lived and understood in the African American community. The resurrected Lord was the crucified Lord. Whatever we think about the meaning of the cross for black women should arise out of their experience of fighting for justice, especially as seen in their collective lives and struggles in the civil rights movement. God's salvation is a liberating event in the lives of all who are struggling for survival and dignity in a world bent on denying their humanity." (Cross & Lynching Tree, 151)
Oh Mary, don't you weep, don't you moan,
Oh Mary, don't you weep, don't you moan,
Pharaoh's army got drownded,
Oh Mary, don't you weep.
Created with images by Luke Richardson - "untitled image" • sharafmaksumov - "The word or phrase Lynch in a dictionary." • esebene - "Easter procession" • Erica Guilane-Nachez - "16th - Procession" • zef art - "Horror view of hanged girl on tree at evening (at night) Suicide decoration. Death punishment executions or suicide abstract idea." • strixcode - "Concept image of business in trouble. Man in suit with Lynch loop instead of tie over neck." • Allie Smith - "untitled image" • Lyudmila Polichenko - "Burning cross on a black background" • KissShot - "statue of ancient Makedonian soldier. alexander soldier - ancient warrior in armor with shield. " • bibiphoto - "Special police team in action" • munshots - "beautiful graffiti mural honoring george floyd from black lives matter protest . . . for more editorial photos: http://www.shutterstock.com/g/MUNSHOTS?rid=267047586" • Jon Tyson - "untitled image" • T. Chick McClure - "A woman declares “No Hate” at a protest in Los Angeles, California 2017." • Matteo Paganelli - "Humanity wall" • Sticker You - "Black Lives Matter" • Library of Congress - "Civil rights march on Washington, D.C. Film negative by photographer Warren K. Leffler, 1963. From the U.S. News & World Report Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. Photograph shows a procession of African Americans carrying signs for equal rights, integrated schools, decent housing, and an end to bias. https://www.loc.gov/item/2003654393/" • Heather Mount - "3/29/18: University of North Texas students gathered at the Library Mall in Denton, Texas after word spread that a small group of Nation Street Preacher demonstrators were there to “outreach” with their racist, anti-gay rhetoric. Counter-protesters held signs, danced, chanted and played instruments to drown out the slurs from the preachers’ megaphone. Counter protesters included Christians, BLM activists and the LGBTQIA community, all joined together to denounce the unwelcome messages." • Rawpixel.com - "Young boy shouting on a megaphone in a protest" • blvdone - "Malcolm X blvd street sign in Harlem New York City" • Bruno Figueiredo - "untitled image" • massimo lama/EyeEm - "Close-Up Of Ku Klux Klan Person On Sunny Day" • Robert Nyman - "We flew on a helicopter ride right next to the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro in April 2017. A cloudy day, but happy to see the statue peak out!"