“The more we run from race in the country, the more we run toward it.”
-Wynton Marsalis, jazz musician
The song Strange Fruit was based on an Abel Meeropol poem written in 1937. It was first sung and recorded by the amazing vocalist Billie Holiday in 1939. The poem protested American racism and lynching of African-Americans in the American South. From this song, the veil of what was happening in the American South was lifted — but to people of color? We had already known. And our grandparents tried to hide it from us by running from the darkest parts of the south to where the light is and was north of there.
Last week, on April 28, the souls and names of 4,400 African Americans who were victims of lynching were remembered in The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration historical site in Montgomery, Alabama. This site has been researched to have been a slave pen where black people were once imprisoned before being sold at auction. As a woman of color, descended from sharecroppers and enslaved people, this memorial is stripping me of words, giving emotions only someone else of color could understand.
However, in the midst of this joy of perhaps finding or finishing a genus of families shattered by segregation, enslavement and subjugation, this same week a memorial to Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States of America, is preserved. The museum, called The First White House of the Confederacy, labels Davis a “renowned American patriot” and is not far from this historical site dedicated to African-Americans. There is no mention of his or his family’s history of owning human beings or his pro-slavery history.
There are those who are descended from slave owners and overseers, who believe it is better to “let sleeping dogs lie” in regards to the matter of race and racism and slavery. There was a quote in The Guardian by a local Montgomery resident. Mikki Keenan, who is 58, in speaking on behalf of the racially timid and unlearned vox populi of the city said, [some people thought] “it’s a waste of money, a waste of space and it’s bringing up bullshit.”
You cannot make this shit up.
Not even an hour drive from where human beings were sold as chattel, there is a whole memorial to the white man who fought for the right to own those same people, but that’s not a waste of money. It’s the new lie they tout — it’s their heritage. Funny how that works, really. Heritage can only be such when it doesn’t offend a ruling class, points out its hypocrisy or challenge the whitewashed and porch swept narrative. Heritage can only be so when it is okay to pull it out and defend the actions of ancestors whose oppression of others you rightly and directly benefit from –then turn around and say, “Well we didn’t do anything! Those are our grandparents and great-grandparents! Get over it!” Nothing can be gotten over if it’s not acknowledged.
The hypocrisy is evident, it is unsurprising and it is staggering. The reason this monument, this memorial is so offensive to the locals of the greater Montgomery community is it challenges the narrative. In testing the narrative, you challenge the facts taught to you, and if you can do that, you upset the system as a whole. The American South has never wanted its dirty laundry seen, talked about or even the washerwoman to tell what was all in the basket. Erasure is part of this narrative they call heritage. Erasure gives and fosters the power the of a written narrative which has been given to a community, strengthens systematic racism and powers the prison industrial complex.
It is the power to control what is true, false, and obscene that power this faux outrage about this museum. For all this talk of patriotism, and nationalism, these people have forgotten that the Confederates — all these Johnny Reb granpappies — were traitors to a nation to the point they decided to tear the union apart because they couldn’t have what they wanted. The Confederate army will never stop being romanticized because a century and change later, there are pockets of their descendants who can’t believe they lost! Moreover, these pseudo-patriots have been fighting to be recognized or relevant ever since! So, please, tell me, and other people of color, the descendants of slaves, the seeds of strange fruit, why the truth offends you to the point it must be erased?
Melissa Harris-Perry says that every culture, every country has its thing. And she said, race is our thing in America. I want to know when it will stop being our thing, and become the thing that we deal with, that we confront and tell the truth about. There are some people that won’t acknowledge the plight and heritage of other people, however dark, unless you throw it in their faces. In these cases, those around you, whom are different than you will not acknowledge your pain, access to your history or question it unless you break their world’s apart with facts.
This memorial, this historical site shows us we must not cower in the face of people who are uncomfortable! The Legacy Museum stakes a claim on blackness, the dismantling of the benevolence of white supremacy narrative and the right for African-Americans to own ourselves and know all of our legacy.