As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.
I knew this months ago when I changed my happy-go-lucky Facebook photo to the 1930 public lynchings of Tom Shipp and Abe Smith. Unsure of how to process my emotions just a few hours after a grand jury decided to not indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo for the murder of Eric Garner, it was the only way I knew to express my grief and shock.
I expected my like-minded friends to get it, of course. After Trayvon, Michael, Tamir, Rekia, Ezell, Renisha, and -- well, you get the point -- we had long grown tired of hearing of another unarmed and innocent black person dying at the hands of real and wannabe law enforcement. And in Mr. Garner's case, his demise was captured on video for all to see.
What I didn't expect, and perhaps naively, was the immediate pushback from a few, dear white friends. One asked if "this was the ignorance I'd grown to support." Someone reported the photo to Facebook. And a childhood pal accused me of further dividing our country, as if the photo -- and not the sin of systemic racial injustice captured in the photo -- was the cause of our disunity.
Those I offended wanted a public apology for disrupting their regularly-scheduled Facebook perusing. Lynching photos, after all, don't fit neatly between Kim Kardashian memes and your friend's engagement photos.
But I didn't apologize then, and I won't now -- after Antonio; after Walter; after Freddie; after Emmanuel; and after, well, again you get the point.
Whether we like it or not, the image of Tom Shipp and Abe Smith reflect the reality in which so many continue to live. It disturbs us, causes discomfort, and pours salt on centuries-old wounds. But more than that, it screams out that there's nothing new under the sun, just a different way of burning hopes and dreams and lives. That was precisely my point in posting the photo.
Lynching photos cause me to reckon with my own existence in the world, too.
I've spent a good portion of my life surrounded by white Americans, you see. My best friends are white people who, lucky for me, "get it." My brother-in-law is white. And I've only attended predominantly white institutions, or PWIs as they are sometimes referred to among black folk, in which white professors and advisors have cared deeply for my well-being.
Such love and support can be dangerous, though, for having life-giving relationships with people who see me as uniquely and wonderfully made has led me to distance myself from black death at times. It's caused me to strut down a busy NYC block with the assumption that strangers will believe my black life matters in the same way. But that's naivete at its best.
They don't see me the way my friends do. They sure as hell don't see me the way my mother sees me. To some, I represent whatever stereotype or fear or anxiety that precedes their interaction with me.
Photos of mangled, dark bodies remind me in the most disturbing of ways that neither my academic pedigree nor my life lived in a racial melting pot guarantees my safety.
I am no exception.
I am no city on a hill.
Toss me into New Orleans' Ninth Ward, and nothing sets me apart from every other black or brown body caught in a system that cares little about their worth.
To disregard non-white life means you don't take people of color seriously. To silence and shame those who speak out against racial injustice and police brutality -- like cutting Janelle Monae's appearance on The Today Show -- is to participate in white privilege and supremacy. And perhaps this form of oppression is even more insidious, as its participants are not identifiable in white hoods, but blend in with everyday life.
In reflecting on our racial past, though, we often look back with disgust and washed hands. "How could they have done that to Mr. Shipp and Mr. Smith?" we ask. Rarely do we imagine ourselves as the evil doers. We would've done the right thing, we say, and we would've been the voice crying out in the wilderness.
But is that the case, and in the quest to avert your gaze away from noosed necks, do you allow evil to happen in your midst? Even nice, well-intentioned folk aren't immune to the stain that is racism, lest we forget that many a lynching happened after Sunday's benediction.
When the racial injustices of our land grapple my soul, I often return to Baby Suggs' sermon in Toni Morrison's Beloved. She tells them, "Yonder they do not love your flesh...they despise it." "And, oh 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."
Set after the American Civil War, her words remain chillingly appropo, as she both names the darkness that is black death and seeks to shine light onto the black lives that surround her.
So, if lynching photos upset you, channel that grief into solidarity with those who grieve and worry that their child or spouse may be the next victim.
If they make you angry and yearn for change, then let your voice be heard, wherever you may live.
And if images of mangled or bullethole-ridden bodies leave you speechless, sit in silence, if you must, and listen carefully to those who speak victims' names, stand in the face of adversity, and scream at the top of their lungs, "I can't breathe."
Hopefully you'll find your footing sooner than later; maybe you'll plead with the rest of us that #blacklivesmatter.