By Eric Owens
“… And O my people, out yonder,
Hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight,
So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up
And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs you got to love them.
The dark, dark liver-love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too.
More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air.
More than your life holding womb and your life-giving private parts.
Hear me now, love your heart, For this is the prize.”
I first came upon this passage this past March during my visit to The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. A participant of First Corinthian Baptist Church, Men’s Fellowship Retreat, Iron Sharpens Iron . In Montgomery, Alabama for four days we engaged in meditation, workshops, and conversation. Roughly 60 African American men of faith varying in age, sexual identity, education, and economic backgrounds engaging together.
On the second day of our retreat we experienced The National Memorial for Peace and Justice also referred to as “The Lynching Memorial.” Set on six-acre site the memorial was erected in 2016 designed to take you on a journey from slavery through the Emancipation Proclamation to Reconstruction and Jim Crow into lynching and racial terror.
Dedicated to the history of lynchings and racial terror from 1877 to 1950. The memorial begins with historical facts and dates acknowledging the beginning of slavery in America to the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery into Reconstruction. Soon after walking up a slight hill I began the covered portion of the memorial where I begin encountering the named and unnamed individuals lynched by county, state, and year.
I read each name honoring each life as they appear engraved into the iron suspended structures. Row after row lined up like a marching band are monuments hanging. Later these monuments begin to include stories of individual and mass lynchings. Stories, pictures, and newsletters announcements of public lynching events, documented sites where lynchings occurred.
And recounts of reasons for lynching.
It was here I began to understand the definition and meaning of “social terror” as these were public events meant to send a clear message of fear and terror. I continued through the memorial soon to became aware of how close in history and location lynchings took place to me.
As a native-born man from Indiana, I spent lots of time visiting Kentucky in the 70’s and 80s and reading a lynching memorial dated 1950 in a county of Kentucky quickly became so much more personal. I continued further into the memorial and read that lynchings occurred by hanging, burning, shooting, drowning, stabbing and beating, in front of large crowds further illustrating “social terror.” I continued further, the floor continuing to slowly decline leaving the suspended metal memorial structures hanging overhead symbolic of lynching. Further on I encountered an area several jars filled with dirt; these jars were filled with excavated dirt where the blood of lynched black bodies fell.
As I continued on, I read horrific recounts of black men’s genitals being cut off and stuffed into their mouths before being lynched before large mobs and left hung for days after. Upon exiting the covered portion of the memorial with hundreds of metal structures looming high above behind me I encounter this passage written by Toni Morrison. Her words so powerfully touched and captured me.
“So love your neck, put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it, and hold it up…”
At the culmination of this moment feelings of sadness, anger, fear, guilt and personal responsibility rose up. I sat there on a nearby bench and cried.
Later, arriving back to our hotel I began decompressing and processing my feelings. Sadness, anger, blame and even guilt circled in my head. I then began to shift towards acceptance, then acknowledgment, strength and appreciation for my ancestors and history.
Two days later upon conclusion of the retreat, I returned to New York City on March 14, 2020 amidst the beginning of COV1D19. I share this experience as a continuum of my last blog on Juneteenth June 19, 2019 where I spoke of Sankofe. Little did I know that while I was composing this another unarmed black man would be killed by an officer kneeling on his neck only to be followed by another unarmed black man shot in Atlanta.
On this Juneteenth of 2020, I close with this passage also from The National Memorial for Peace Justice.
“For the hanged and beaten.
For the shot, drowned, and burned.
For the tortured, tormented, and terrorized.
For those abandoned by the Rule of Law.
We will remember.
With hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice.
With courage because peace requires bravery.
With persistence because justice is a constant struggle.
With faith because we shall overcome.”
- Equal Justice Initiative
Learn more about The National Memorial for Peace and Justice HERE and follow it on Twitter @MemPeaceJustice
Learn more about the Equal Justice Initiative HERE and follow them on Twitter @eji_org Instagram at @eji_org
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