George Zimmerman and the Long History of Selling “Souvenirs”

Former neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman’s decision to sell, as he describes, “the firearm that was used to defend my life and end the brutal attack from Trayvon Martin” is just another link in the long chain of America’s historical obsession with selling and owning memorabilia connected with the murder of African Americans.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries spectators used to hoard pieces of rope, body parts, embers and charred remains of lynching victims.  During the twentieth century pictures of the horrific murders were sold on the streets and some individuals would send the images as postcards to friends and loved ones proudly proclaiming participation, spectatorship or just some fiendish connection with the event.

We are a nation that often self-righteously proclaims our innocence to the world. Witness, for duboisexample, a presidential candidate who has repeatedly expressed astonishment that ISIS members would decapitate individuals who did not agree with them, all the while glossing over America’s brutal, horrific past that has included beheadings, burnings, hangings, dismemberment, and the display and selling of body parts as a type of totemic relics.

We are a nation that was stupefied and petrified in 2004 when the bodies of American soldiers were left hanging from a bridge in Fallujah, forgetting, ignoring or simply unaware that this type of terrorist spectacle occurred repeatedly in America during the time of what scholar, activist W. E. B. Du Bois called the lynching industry, 1880s-1950s.

The selling of a gun used to kill an unarmed African American as a trophy, or “an opportunity to own a piece of American history” is unacceptable.  As a nation we should demand more. Remember: it is rarely the inmates in a madhouse who judge themselves to be insane, but is a task that usually falls to those on the outside.

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Shawn Leigh Alexander is associate professor of African and African American Studies and director of the Langston Hughes Center at the University of Kansas.  He is the author of An Army of Lions: The Struggle for Civil Rights before the NAACP (2012); W. E. B. Du Bois: An American Intellectual and Activist (2015); and the editor of a collection of T. Thomas Fortune’s writings, T. Thomas Fortune: The Afro-American Agitator (2008).

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