Get it Right and Say it Plain

08/31/2017 05:10 pm ET
“Today, the old oak tree in the courthouse square in Goliad provides welcome shade from the south Texas sun. Once, however, it served another, more sinister, purpose. A historical marker reveals that in 1857 the tree was the location for the hanging of Mexican cartmen by Anglo vigilantes who sought control of their trade route.” –Mob Violence Against Mexicans in the United States: The Strangest Fruit in Historical Context, William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb, Washington and Lee University, 2015

It is conservatively estimated that at least 547 Mexicans were lynched in Texas and California between 1848 and 1928. Scholars fear that there are more than a thousand undocumented cases. These many Mexicans were the victims of racial terror, whose perpetrators were motivated by a toxic mix of abject racism and fear of economic competition.

In the minds of new Anglo settlers to the Southwest, Mexicans were mongrels, products of the infamous “Black Legend,” propagated by the mix of Spanish, Indigenous and African bloods, and therefore inferior beings. Propelled by the nefarious notion of Manifest Destiny and the United States’ victory in the Mexican–American War, this country gained lands known today as Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah (along with parts of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Wyoming). With the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848, thousands of Mexicans became U.S. citizens, mostly in name only. Given their long history in Texas, many Tejanos became expert freighters, and posed an economic threat to the new rulers. In California, many Californios perfected their mining skills, again posing threats to Anglo newcomers seeking to strike it rich. The perceived less-than-human status of the skilled Mexicans provided all the justification needed to engage in their elimination through lynching, oftentimes practiced with the similar ritualized depravity that characterized the lynching of African Americans.

Recently, I went to see The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America, an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibition is a collaboration with the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), featuring many works by a who’s-who of contemporary African American artists. The artwork is coupled with a series of moving video testimonies of family members of lynching victims and former prisoners (the notion that the uber-incarceration and killing of African American men signifies that lynching has moved from outside to inside). An interactive map also allows the visitor to grasp the numerical and geographic reality of this institutionalized practice of ritualized murder.

EJI has launched a campaign to build a national memorial to victims of lynching in Montgomery, Alabama, its home base. I have had the great pleasure of meeting Bryan Stevenson, EJI’s dynamic leader, and have financially contributed to this effort. I have also indicated to Mr. Stevenson that if there is to be a national memorial to lynching victims, the lives and deaths of Mexicans should also be recognized. He has material on the subject of Mexican lynching, including a catalogue of the work of San Antonio artist, Vincent Valdez, whose powerful, life-size Strangest Fruit series dramatizes this painful legacy. We’ll have to wait and see what EJI decides to do with this other legacy of lynching.

It is my view that museums and builders of national memorials should present the most complete story possible, especially when the subject implicates multiple communities. In the case of the Brooklyn Museum, this is unfortunately not the first time that it fails to do so. Such was the case with its 2014 exhibition, Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, one that failed to reflect non-African American civil rights movements and its artists. Excluded was content about the Chicano Movement, American Indian Movement, Red Guard, and, incredibly, the Young Lords, whose activism reached its pinnacle in New York City. I wrote about this exclusion in a previous Huffington Post piece.

As of 2012, Latinos constitute 17 percent of the U.S. population, and our numbers continue to grow rapidly. Our communities have made historically significant contributions to nation-building and shaping national culture. As such, the story of the socially sanctioned, ritualized murder of Mexicans should be addressed at opportune times—whether it is a temporary exhibition or a permanent national memorial.

James Baldwin once said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed if not faced.” In the case of the Brooklyn Museum, it is too late to incorporate the reality of Mexican lynching into its current exhibition. It is, however, not too late for the Equal Justice Initiative to ensure that this tragic American story is acknowledged for generations to come.

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