Thanks to NPR for publishing the speech from U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves. He read it to three young white men before sentencing them for the death of a 48-year-old black man named James Craig Anderson in a parking lot in Jackson, Mississippi, a man I learned this morning grew up with a friend of mine.
Judge Reeves references “Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynching in America,” in his speech. I happened upon this exhibit at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh in 2001. Back then I thought I’d be childless by choice forever, so I definitely wasn’t considering becoming mother to three black children seven years later. I stared at the postcards for hours, walking around in a near dreamlike state, with Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” playing in the background, and the exhibit has haunted me ever since. Thanks to Author, Hannibal Johnson, for connecting the dots for me recently by mentioning the project and reminding me of its title – I didn’t realize what a historical impact the project had made until I saw him writing about it.
The most unsettling part of the Judge’s speech for me was how “normal” these young killers seemed to those around them. Before you write off them and the people in the lynching photos as monsters, consider your own potential biases and the potential biases of those you love. Harvard has a series of bias tests that are truly illuminating. I would gladly throw myself in front of several swift-moving comets for my sweet children, and I got a “moderate automatic preference for European American” on the Race IAT. We’re not living in a post-racial world, and I don’t know that we ever will. In the words of Carl Jung, “There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own Soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”