Essays

Why Do Walls Encase the National Memorial for Peace and Justice?

An essay about a memorial, that unlike others, does not pepper cities and towns, but exists out of view.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Alabama (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

MONTGOMERY, Alabama — When you are of a place, not just from, but of, where the washed red clay seeps into breath and memory, where kudzu wraps around the decay of living and growing, when everything about you is steeped in the place, how can you step into a sight that is clear?

How can you step into the trauma of a past when you know that some of your people perpetuated that trauma?

How do we as white people now, make room for truths and stories to rise that have long been silenced, buried by years and years of seasons building topsoil. Things get buried by the physical process of time moving, seasons changing, taking the fingertips of history that remain grasping at a surface, and putting them away, into the soil. The death of it. This past.

Burying happens by people — we bury the dead, but also the intentional and unintentional silencing made possible by human actions, of ideas, of memory, of voice.

But, silence … we do not have to go gentle into that good night.

There are histories that need to be told over and over again. Not the history of this country I was taught in public and private schools in Alabama and Georgia — neat snippets that minimized nearly all of the people who resided here in this deep south space, stories and experience collapsed into primarily perceptions of the ones who had the privilege to record being a witness.

Truth be told, when Hyperallergic reached out to me about writing this piece, I was not ready to go to Montgomery, to walk across the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. It was not because I was afraid of what I might learn. I knew the facts already. I am of this place, generations of me and my family are from this place, I know what gets swept away and what remains, how bits and pieces of exception can become a reality of fabricated truth.

This piece is about me as a person interacting with the dedicated space in Montgomery. This piece is about my experience of this memorialization. It makes space. In stepping into that space, I can’t seem to step away from its twines that wrap my whole being. Have you ever seriously studied root structure and vines and imagined the intricacy and movement of roots?

With some hesitation, I went to the memorial. I left Staton Correctional facility, where visiting poet and friend Suzanne Gardinier had been doing a workshop, and drove in the Alabama summer to Montgomery. It is pertinent to know that for the past 17 years I have created and run the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project at Auburn University. I stepped into the place of remembering lynching and systemic racial violence, from not only being of the red soil of rural Alabama, but everyday working in systems made by the long arms of discrimination that provide most of the framework for how this nation evolved.

I had purposely stayed away from any media about the place, the intention, knowing that when I was able to step there, it needed to be with as much clarity as my heart and head could muster.

Hanging.

From the ceiling, steel boxes made red,

veins of rust drip

names cut inside, stamps into history:

do not forget.

Of course, I walked to all the counties where I have lived in the south. Everyone else from here that has gone inside has done that too. Find the marker, so that you can check off that you have seen. Witnessed. But if that is all the viewer does, to somberly walk through the hanging towers of thousands of cut-in names that seem to break shadows and light, I’d suggest you are missing the point. Maybe if that is the only experience, it reinforces why there must be a place to acknowledge the dead, all the knowns and unknowns. There are unknowns. You can’t study the south and not know about the disappearing.

I wanted to come to the place without having spent my time predicting how I would respond to the rows and rows of murdered. I walked. The temperatures in the mid 90s. That kind of heat intensifies everything. Hands metal clasped, metal bound, reaching, grasping for a child, for freedom, for anything other than enslavement.

I walked the perimeter, reading the walls. Reading about terror. Abject terror. About the mindset of a nation to destroy or to boldly sit in apathy. The cultivated blindness that we humans have become so good at. Coming up the hill, I was on the edge. Literally and metaphorically. On the edge of getting physically sick, on the edge of passing out, on the edge of getting a glimpse of what terror must have felt like for all these thousands of people. And then thinking what that terror looks like now. I kept asking myself, what has really changed? I kept feeling like I could not breath, and then calling on Eric Garner, who could not breath and is dead. What has changed.

Names after names after names. All these counties around me and over the whole south and nation named for white people in power, many who enslaved people, destroyed the native populations of the country, squashed out many on their own path to power and perceived greatness.

I found all my counties. All the places I have lived in the South. I lingered the longest on Tallapoosa County, because there was a name I had not thought about in a long time.

Ralph Gray.

Ralph Gray.

Ralph Gray.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Alabama (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

It was a name I had not looked at for more than 10 years. His name found me when I was in graduate school in New York working on my Masters in women’s history. Ralph Gray was from Camp Hill. Ralph Gray lived in the town next to mine. Ralph Gray was the leader of the Sharecropper’s Union and was killed by a mob July 15, 1931 for standing up for what he believed in.

He came to me later when I was writing a poetry manuscript about the Great Depression in rural Alabama. And then over time, I no longer thought about Ralph Gray, even though all the families involved are still there, these generations later.

I did not think of him because I became consumed with my work, my life. I got sucked into other things, and even though I drive all over rural Alabama for my job, seeing all the bones of slavery and sharecropping, and the steel and coal industries — all those vestiges of suffering and corruption and greed, his name stopped rising to the top.

I forgot.

There is a memorial so that we do not forget.

But I remain unsettled. It took months for me to come to what I think is gnawing at me. It is a monument. There are confederate soldiers who still stand all across the southern landscape, and ones that have been relocated, and even torn down, statues and memorials are meant to honor, to remember. They exist to be seen. I think about all the monuments in Washington D.C. and Birmingham, all these places that I have seen, and pondered an American experience of memorial, of individuals and events, and movements and wars. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is behind solid walls. You cannot see unless you move with intention to the inside.

I can’t stop thinking about all the people who pass by walking, or in cars, and who cannot see in, those who don’t have any intention of going in. Those I imagine would be like some of my neighbors — not interested, even offended. But I want them to be interested, I want them to see inside. I want them to be offended by our history of injustice. I need them to be.

I need this in the same way that I want the world to see inside prisons, to see the people. By their very existence, walls are meant to keep in and keep out. It is a mechanism for safety, but also control. As a society, that which we cannot see, we cannot understand. My heart and head don’t really want this memorial removed from view. I know this place was built with great intention and care. And I’d like to imagine eyes being forced to see because of sheer proximity.

On the interior side of the walls history is written so that the exterior presents a specific narrative arc. You wind around, reading and feeling, tighter and tighter in your chest. The sidewalk is a gradual wrapping grade that moves you to the knoll, where all the hanging present themselves in measured precision, regimented, stoic, overwhelming in the immovable lines of suspended rusted red.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Alabama (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

So, the point: I am of this place. My distant kin was Robert Shelton. Look him up. My life is the antithesis of his. But we are kin. We are connected. We are part of those roots and vines twined all over the history of being. He believed intensely, just as I do. His was based on a hatred and fear that is different from my own. I hate intolerance, I hate discrimination, I hate violence. I have been the recipient of these things.  I fear the world that systemically creates hierarchy based on false notions of success and goodness rooted in economic measures and skin color and prescribed ideas of gender identification and conformity, one that pushes all the defined others to the periphery. I understand without hesitation the fibers that connect us all. The roots of hatred are connected to the roots of love and compassion and equity and safety. But you have to know the roots. You must have gigantic iron columns of bleeding rust to tell you not to forget. You must see it in the daylight, when shadows drop, and you must imagine it a night.

Those pillars hanging.

We cannot undo.

But we can vow to not repeat.

 

 

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