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Strange Fruit: The Embrace of Our History in All Its Cruelty

I had a very bizarre childhood that traversed several cultures, countries, and histories, defying any facile, handy description that I could throw out on a second date or at an office party.  As complex and even cruel parts of my childhood were, I have come to appreciate the amazing presence of my father, who despite his flaws, had an immense impact on making me the person I am today. In large part, the uniqueness of my childhood was due to the coincidence of my father’s life growing up surrounded by devastating poverty amidst the cruel reality of the Partition of India in 1947 and the crushing reality which he faced when moving from Gujarat to Alabama in 1959.  My father entered a part of the United States whose history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and racist cruelties that touched my father deeply.  Even though my father arrived in Birmingham to attend dental school at the twilight of the Jim Crow era with the burgeoning Civil Rights movement gaining steam, his experiences in the Deep South formed part of the lessons we later received as children because the one thing my father took away from what he witnessed and experienced within the Civil Rights movement is that one must always speak out against injustice—whatever the cost.

Skip to many years later, when my father, a practicing periodontist in Canada, was offered a teaching position in a university in New Orleans.  I was ten years old when we moved from Canada to New Orleans and this new world was very different from the old. “Dirty” words we had rarely heard were spray-painted on walls in this new town, the weather was not so cold for a mid December evening when we arrived, and we felt more at home than where we had previously called home simply because we were living in a place where people looked more like my father and less like a 1950’s sitcom.  Yet, the racism we would soon experience and witness in the Deep South was at a level that went beyond the snide comments of the snide Canadians asking our mother if we were “mixed-race” or “mulatto” and resembled more the tone of the graffiti-filled walls.

Our last name was a constant theme of mockery as children didn’t know how to say an Indian surname and instead turned it into something it “sounded like”—the kids calling us instead “commodey” and “Cambodi” and asking us if we too were the “boat people” of Southeast Asia.  So, when I was also asked if I “spoke Canadian,” my only rebellion to the racism we experienced was to answer in the affirmative,  and when asked to say “Hello” in “Canadian” I would say, “Hello.”

The day soon came when the other children at school were singing the Beach Boy’s song “Barbara Ann”—except they changed the lyrics to “bomb bomb bomb, bomb bom Iran…”  Trying to fit in, my brother and I sang along. It was 1979.  Later that day while cleaning up after dinner, my brother and I sang this new version of “Barbara Ann” to which, my father having heard the lyrics, grew upset and sent us to our rooms.  Shortly after, he called us into the living room and handed us two books we were assigned to read: The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi: An Autobiography.  He grounded us for a month and our daily task after school was to read both books and present book reports nightly during dinner in both written and verbal formats as if a class presentation.

What struck me about reading King’s and Gandhi’s historical accounts of the injustices in which they lived is how they approached the cruelty they witnessed from analytical and geographical perspectives.  From the child marriages that Gandhi admonishes to the lynching sites that King recalls passing, the brutality that both men witness forms their social and political awareness, despite their readings being marked by the conspicuous absence of female subjectivity.  Both men note the significance of the body which bears the mark of historical and political injustices. 

King writes of his childhood noting the societal marks of racism and the sites of the dead:

I had grown up abhorring not only segregation but also the oppressive and barbarous acts that grew out of it. I had seen police brutality with my own eyes, and watched Negroes receive the most tragic injustice in the courts. I can remember the organization known as the Ku Klux Klan. It stands on white supremacy, and it was an organization that in those days even used violent methods to preserve segregation and to keep the Negro in his place, so to speak. I remember seeing the Klan actually beat a Negro. I had passed spots where Negroes had been savagely lynched. All of these things did something to my growing personality.

The sites of horror from American history were laid out like a map as King recalls leaving the deep south to work one summer on a tobacco farm in Simsbury, Connecticut and his surprise that he was able to attend a church or eat in a restaurant among whites.  He recalls the feeling of having to return to the South after a summer of relative freedom, noting the the sinking feeling he had when having to switch train cars in Washington D.C., obliged to move to the Jim Crow car:  “The first time that I was seated behind a curtain in a dining car, I felt as if the curtain had been dropped on my selfhood. I could never adjust to the separate waiting rooms, separate eating places, separate rest rooms, partly because the separate was always unequal, and partly because the very idea of separation did something to my sense of dignity and self-respect.”

For King, the body of the dead, like the segregation of black from white bodies throughout the south, demarcates the injustice of racism, symbolized by that nefarious practice of lynching, enforcing white supremacy which was still utilized throughout the 1960s.  While this horrid practice was used with relative frequency between 1880 and 1920, it is estimated that approximately 4,400 African-Americans were hanged, burned alive, tortured to death, or shot, all in the effort to maintain white supremacy in the post-slavery era of the American south.  Kamau Cush writes: “In fact, the terror of lynching lay more in its threat than in its execution. Lynching intimidated blacks and excited whites not because it was common, but because it could be perpetrated at any moment without fear of punishment.”  Even when lynching receded as a common practice, it’s threat was racial terrorism that kept the rule of law in the hands of those with the power to exercise such threats.  A 2017 study demonstrates that the fact of lynchings in the post-Reconstruction South actively “reduced local black voter turnout by roughly 2.5 percentage points.”  Aside from the threat of lynching that hangs over our country’s history is the magnitude of it paired with the circumstances of each story.

After years in the making, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and its accompanying museum open this week in Montgomery, Alabama, the product of the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).  This is the United States’ “first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.”  The memorial is a collection of 800 brown rectangular, six-foot tall, steel slabs, one for each county in the United States where lynching took place.  The names of more than 4,000 men, women, and children who lost their lives from lynchings between 1877 and 1950 are inscribed on each column along with the date and place of their murder.

EJI initiated the research for this project in 2010, finally producing Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror in 2015 which documented thousands of racial terror lynchings in twelve states. Since then, EJI has added to its original research by included lynchings from states outside the Deep South while memorializing this tragic history by collecting soil and erecting public markers on hundreds of lynching sites, in order to reflect more truthfully the historical landscape through the inclusion of monuments and memorials. And the stories are finally being told through this combination of public sculpture and narrative outlined through the memorial’s walk, documenting the way that lynching effected the Great Migration of out of the deep South between 1915 and 1970 where more than 6 million African Americans escaped this form of racial terrorism to settled throughout the North, Midwest and West.

New York Times writer, Campbell Robertson, describes the memorial:

The magnitude of the killing is harrowing, all the more so when paired with the circumstances of individual lynchings, some described in brief summaries along the walk: Parks Banks, lynched in Mississippi in 1922 for carrying a photograph of a white woman; Caleb Gadly, hanged in Kentucky in 1894 for “walking behind the wife of his white employer”; Mary Turner, who after denouncing her husband’s lynching by a rampaging white mob, was hung upside down, burned and then sliced open so that her unborn child fell to the ground.

The devastation revealed by this treacherous chapter of American history is finally being told and although this does not bring back the dead souls who suffered such senseless inhumanity, it sets up our culture to understanding how “never again” must remain visible and evoked through such monuments and narratives unearthed.  This decades-long history of terror is what provoked the Civil Rights Movement and what prompted Dr. King to recall the ways that lynching functions both in its original sense and then through its spiritual permutations. On 10 July, 1966, King spoke at Chicago’s Soldier Field to over 30,000 people:

We are here today because we are tired….We are here because we’re tired of living in rat-infested slums.  We are tired of having to pay a median rent of $97 a month in Lawndale for four rooms while whites in South Deering pay $73 a month for five rooms… We are tired of being lynched physically in Mississippi, and we are tired of being lynched spiritually and economically in the North.

King sought to address social injustices of the past and present. The history of lynching links forever the oppressive forces of a people who believed their racial superiority—much less the fiction of “race”—as that which set them apart from the black bodies they murdered. Little did they know that their actions would one day be the mark of a society’s shame and confirmation of a legacy our country still struggles with, albeit in ways that have shifted to  power structures within the government, the police, access to education, and the prison industrial complex aimed primarily at locking up and keeping out of site black men.

While King envisioned a revolution of the people moving outward into the social, Gandhi’s revolution was invariably about the transformation of the society through the transformation of the individual. For Gandhi the self and the social were not unrelated and he worked to undo the focus on uniquely the inner like by bringing Indians to take action related to social and political injustices through non-violence. Gandhi witnessed racial injustices in South Africa during his time there as a young lawyer, noting the discrimination directed at Indians living in Durban which increased as Indian indentured laborers were growing in number and the white colonists growing nervous with the “coolies” accumulating wealth in the region.

Gandhi records the racism he lived through in his time in Transvaal, such as when he traveled to Pretoria for a court case, despite holding a first-class ticket, Gandhi was ordered by the train conductor to move to a third-class compartment based on his race. He refused, was pushed out, and spent the night in the at Maritzburg train station.  Or when he went to an English barber in Pretoria who refused to cut his hair. And despite his troubling allegiance to the British Empire at this part of his life, Gandhi witnessed how British landlords had constrained indentured laborers in Bihar to grow indigo instead of the food crops the peasants needed to survive. He lived through the peasant revolt of Champaran in 1914 and again in 1916. Gandhi studies the conditions of the indigo planters worked in only to be charged by the British of “creating unrest” with the order to leave the region immediately. 

While the injustices Gandhi fought against were not the same as those King battled across the seas, the struggle against the loss of lie due to inhumanity, greed, colonial force, and racism brought the legacy of both individuals into the twenty-first century.  King credits Gandhi for his inspiration to non-violent resistance, and inauspiciously it would seem that the inspiration needs to be reinvoked in India as the country has been facing a new wave of lynchings in the growing conflict between Hindus and Muslims.  Brought about largely because of Hindutva, the ideology of “Hinduness” that is used to reinforced the politics of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). lynchings are a sad part of Indian history dating back to the 19th century, most often directed at Muslims by the Hindu majority mob.  In this recent story of lynching, however, the pretext of “beef lynchings” has turned a creature representing spirituality into a symbol of hatred against a minority community.

Since the election of Modi in 2014, the country has seen a steady rise in lynchings where last year alone there were a dozen Muslims lynched at the hands of Hindus, many of them for allegedly eating beef or selling cows for slaughter.  Uttar Pradesh, a state now controlled by Hindu nationalist priest, Yogi Adityanath, handpicked by Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, last year, is at the epicenter of the recent lynchings since Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched in 2015, with dozens more murdered by mobs in the months following.  In one analysis of mob violence and lynching between January 2011 and June 2017, “cow-related violence” has risen “from five percent of the total incidents (of Lynching or Public Disorder) to over 20 percent by the end of June 2017.”  One report indicates that 2,097 such murders were committed between 2000 and 2012 in at least 12 states.

Aside from Uttar Pradesh, lynching as a form of vigilantism has grown in other Indian states where violence towards Muslims is increasing in states like Kerala, Haryana, Rajasthan, Delhi, and beyond.  Even Hindus are subject to lynching, such as the 21-year-old Dalit who was lynched in Anand, Gujarat for the “crime” of watching a garba, a ritual dance. Not far from Anand is Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s capital which was once integrated and today completely segregated since the 2002 Gujarat riots, also know as the “Anti-Muslim pogrom,” which left 2,000 Muslims were murdered and tens of thousands homeless in what has been described as a “carefully planned and coordinated attacks of unprecedented savagery.”

With the BJP government vastly underreporting the cases of lynch mobs rife throughout the country, there is little hope of addressing what is a growing issue.  As Gau Raksha Dals, “Cow Security Squads,” are being used to safeguard cows and the government continues to turn a blind eye, Muslims are the easiest population to scapegoat in a political climate that welcomes violence towards Muslims.

When visiting my father in the years prior to his death, I would document him through voice recording, photos, and video, each time experimenting with different formats. Not yet having acquired a smartphone or smartwatch to document our discussions, I often used an older multimedia device to record my father as her retold me stories about his life in Alabama.  In the midst of his storytelling, it struck me that in this specific context he spoke uniquely of what he witnessed of the Civil Rights era and of African Americans in Birmingham—never about himself. So I asked, “How were you treated as an Indian by the white students and by the university?”  He responded, “They put us in separate dormitories.”  I asked what he meant by this, and it was clear from my father’s answer that he did not see himself as having been discriminated against by virtue of having been segregated from the white students. He saw himself as lucky compared to his black brothers and sisters whose reality dwarfed anything my father had, at the very least, discussed with us. 

This is now our legacy.

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Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com

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