While this gave me a moment of pause, I did not feel that there was
anything behind these doors that I could not handle.
I was wrong.
At first, the exhibit appears to be like any other. Small groups
of people huddled together sharing opinions and interpretations. People
were speaking in hushed tones so as not to disturb those around them.
As I stood in front of the first piece, I realized that the hushed
tones weren't necessary. They would not disturb me. This exhibit would.
I was shocked to realize that these first pieces I came upon were
not just a group of newspaper articles and photographs - many of the
items on display are actual postcards! On the front side they display
images depicting the mutilated faces and bodies of human beings, while
well wishes and a "look at what we have at home" messages
are handwritten on the back. America has secrets.
photograph shows a burned body hanging from a tree. A plaque next
to the photo bears the victim's name. At that point the pure harsh
reality of what I am looking at is thrust upon me. He had a name:
"William Brown." I will never forget his name. I can't.
I will never forget his body, either. While his corpse lay naked and
smoldering, a crowd of white men stood over him and posed for pictures.
America has secrets.
After the first 10 minutes of similar imagery I began to become desensitized
and it became an almost out of body experience. I floated from one
photo to the next observing the most cruel, inhumane treatment I had
ever witnessed. And then I came crashing back to Earth. In one photo
a man in the background holds a little girl. She was small and couldn't
see through the dense crowd that had gathered. They are both white.
He is helping her get a better view of the body hanging from the tree.
The body is black. What is he leaning into her ear to whisper? One
can only look into her eyes and imagine. America has secrets.
After I gathered myself and moved on, the out of body sensation returned.
The weight and magnitude were replaced with the feeling of sensory
overload. This exhibit was simply too much to process. Again, I began
to float. Again, I came crashing down. This time, the cause of the
crash made me gasp at the reality of who I am in this country.
the summer of 1981, a 19-year-old black man went to buy a pack of
cigarettes on a cool summer evening. He never returned. The following
morning he was found hanging from a tree. This is in 1981! I was 8
years old at the time. There were parts of the country that I was
not welcome because of the ebony hue of my skin. Those parts, however
large or small, still exist. These photographs bring the reality to
your face. I didn't think there was anything else to stop me in my
tracks. Yet again, I was mistaken.
In addition to the photographs, there is also a large mural on display
at the exhibition. I found myself involuntarily moving closer and
closer to it until I was at the foot of this massive, ominous piece.
On its black surface, etched in gold letters are the names of individuals
who were lynched in modern America. Each state is listed along with
the names of those victims of Jim Crow injustice. While some states
such as Alaska are noticeably absent, others, like Alabama and Mississippi,
carry long lists of names. The only experience that can be compared
to this would be for Viet Nam vets visiting "The Wall."
This is a sobering reminder of the horrors people have been through.
The list of names includes men, women, and children - all people who
had mothers and fathers, and perhaps sons, daughters, brothers, and
sisters. They looked like me. And they died because of it. Not only
does this carry the names of those people murdered, for every state
present after the last name is listed there is one final entry. For
Michigan, it said twenty-seven: unidentified. Right here in my home
state, there were twenty-seven persons murdered who were never identified.
Somewhere, twenty-seven families waited for their loved one to come
home - someone who never would. Twenty-seven individual questions
that eventually led to many more, all unanswered.
This exhibit is not for the faint of heart. It is a powerful eye
opener for those who still retain an elementary picture of this country
and its history. America has secrets. "Without Sanctuary"
screams loud and clear to anyone who dares to listen. - Von
All Images ©2002 collection of James Allen and John Littelfield.
All rights reserved.