A corridor in the memorial (photo by and courtesy of the Equal Justice Initiative)

It’s imperative for those paying respects to understand and interrogate civil rights museums, memorials, and any other commemorations of Black struggles against oppression as artistic projects, rather than just as supposedly objective monuments. There is an art to remembrance, and like any art form that’s bought and sold, it’s marketed as a commodity. How US society chooses to highlight violence against Black people in both the past and the present is absolutely something political given the immeasurable scars embedded across generations. Art can work against oppression, or it can be a tool for its purposes.

Across the country, many cities like Atlanta, Memphis, and Selma actively market their respective histories and sites of anti-Black violence as tourist destinations, and art is very much a part of these projects. My home of Birmingham, Alabama is notorious for this. The state itself is invested in history, remembrance, and commemoration, and these sorts of projects should be thoroughly unpacked and critiqued. To clarify — such a critique is not a critique of the history any project may attempt to appropriately remember. Rather, it’s a critique of how selective remembrances fails.

Nkyinkim Installation by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo (photo by and courtesy of the Equal Justice Initiative ∕ Human Pictures)

The Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice has received rave reviews throughout the media and by visitors alike. (I use the word “reviews” intentionally here because any project that takes up the task of remembering anti-Black violence runs the risk of becoming entertainment. Violence against Black people has always been and will always be  — as long as the current state of oppression remains — a form of entertainment.) The initial encounter I had when I visited was with the stunning, but agonizing sculptures by Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo of enslaved Africans chained together.

The bold project of memorializing the uncountable number of Black lynching victims in the US is a hefty task. That awareness seems eerily present in the weight of the over 800 corten steel monuments. As you walk through, you go from walking amongst these columns to glancing at them hanging above, as the memorial’s path ramps downward but the ceiling remains horizontal. As the New York Times reports, “[A]s you walk, the floor steadily descends; by the end, the columns are all dangling above, leaving you in the position of the callous spectators in old photographs of public lynchings.” A collapse of historical culpability occurs when I, the relative of a lynching victim myself, am tasked with looking up at these symbolic hangings, surrounded by white spectators.

A spectator taking smartphone photos of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (photo by William C. Anderson/edits by Hyperallergic to conceal the identity of the person in the image)

I walked faster than I had to in order to outpace any white people around me who might distract me from my grief, which prevented me from taking my time with the monument. When I came upon a white man taking photos of the columns, I couldn’t help but think, They’re still taking photos. Lynching itself, like many forms of anti-Black violence, is something we have so much record of, partly because white people rigorously documented their own evil. One of the ways they did this, aside from keeping physical pieces of victims’ bodies, was commemorating the occasion with lynching photos. These heinous events were a form of art and archive for white participants. Lynching became the transformation of Black people’s bodies into centerpieces and collector’s items to be disseminated. This is evidenced by these gruesome compositions and the disrespected, mutilated fragments they left behind, hanging and killed in other ways. This memorial, intentionally or not, reproduces the opportunity for white onlookers to engage in the spectacle of lynching.

The lobby of the Legacy Museum (photo by and courtesy of the Equal Justice Initiative ∕ Human Pictures)

Nearby, at the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum, similar intrusions occur in the name of art, experience, and interaction. Plastered on the front of the museum is the 1893 lynching of Henry Smith, which occurred before thousands of participants in Paris, Texas. I’ve written before about how lynching photos extend into present day’s shareable media incarnations of anti-Black violence, which are disseminated and desensitizing. Black people’s bodies are not the public’s to share, consume, or put up on display so the nation can learn a lesson. The regularity of this callousness makes Black people and our bodies into fuel to push the nation’s betterment through the display of our suffering. That is to say, if you constantly reposition images of public anti-Black violence into the (still racist) public sphere, you run the risk of reproducing violence, and repeatedly forcing Black media consumers to relive racial trauma. It’s worth noting that a lynching today, or even the representation of such, can be enjoyed and consumed by many, just like it would have been in the unresolved past.

Dialogue Space at the Legacy Museum (photo by and courtesy of the Equal Justice Initiative)

One of the most shocking things I observed at the Legacy Museum was the soil collection from numerous lynching sites. It wasn’t the soil itself as much as it was the interactive, fun photo booth that allowed visitors to take happy group pictures using the lynching soil as a backdrop. I felt insulted as I watched white visitors line up to take their photo with the soil their kin may have very well once stood on, before a lynching victim.

However, it’s not just the Equal Justice Initiative’s projects that make some sacrifices for the sake of art and interaction. You can visit the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, where visitors line up at a mock counter to experience a simulation of racist violence during a sit-in. Or, you can take one of the various plantation tours that exist across the United States and the Caribbean, which have ironically commodified the sites on which enslaved Black people were brutalized, raped, and murdered as property.

The work of Northwestern Doctoral Candidate Theodore Foster and what he describes as neoliberal civil rights memory” has been helping me think through this. This is a useful framework to understand how the modern civil rights movement is remembered as a historical event rather than a historical conjuncture. He spoke to Hyperallergic via email about his work, stating:

“If the fungibility of Blackness references how the interchangeability of the slave as a commodity functions both figuratively and literally then we can understand the commodification of civil rights history as remaining within the economy of chattel slavery or the hold of the slave ship. If neoliberalism references a political-economic logic of deregulation, privatization, tax cuts, and austerity that since the late 1970s has prescribed policies that produced socioeconomic urban and rural wastelands for black communities, then we must interrogate the economic values that animate, whitewash and quarantine civil rights history.”

As artistic projects, these commemoration sites become places where the state can reinvest in its narrative of anti-Black violence as a necessary growing pain. Foster referenced the work of art historian and curator LaTanya Autry and her creation of the hashtag, #MuseumsAreNotNeutral, which seeks to unsettle the dominant notion that museums should quarantine, rather than encourage, critical engagement with history, art, and space. Foster told Hyperallergic:

“Neoliberalism seeks to reconcile the mixed legacies of post-WWII Black freedom movements in the form of memories that emphasize the power of liberal democracy, the state, and the market to overcome racial violence and celebrate the triumph of racial progress in monuments, commemorations, and southern sites of terror redeveloped as tourist destinations. Despite attempts to reposition museums as ‘living institutions,’ they will always remain structurally entangled with capital, neoliberalism and racial progress narratives.”

It’s imperative that we commit to a critical approach to these spaces that recognizes that violence can take the form of art under the logic of white supremacy. By allowing spaces that are supposed to remember, recognize, and honor white supremacy’s victims to instead become “unbiased” liberal ventures devoid of accountability or proper grief, we do ourselves a great disservice. If we only expect to see the violence of the world that has killed Black people and still kills us exhibited for onlookers, instead of a radically better world we deserve, we’re not abolishing white supremacy.  We have to counter, defy, and defend against violence; we should not allow it new opportunities to express itself for the sake of art, capital, and consumerism. While I do see some good and potential in much of what I critique here, there are boundless possibilities for liberation in the unseen. To get to a freeing newness, we need bold, confrontational innovations and not just the exhibitions we’re used to.

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William C. Anderson

William C. Anderson is a freelance writer. His work has been published by the Guardian, Truthout, MTV, and Pitchfork among others. He’s co-author of As Black as Resistance (AK Press 2018).

16 replies on “When a Lynching Memorial Becomes a Photo Opportunity”

  1. I applaud William Anderson for this powerful contribution. As a white descendant of both lynch mob members and complicit law officers, I spent 25 years researching details of this and other racial crimes in a book The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia. With African American descendants of one of my family’s victims I dug soil. We took it to EJI in Montgomery and, yes, took pictures, but we were engaged in anything but tourist consumerism. Many white descendants, though certainly not enough, of the lynch mobs and whites in general, are engaged in investigation, exposure, confession, and reparations. This has been my full-time work for over three decades, much of which includes encouraging and enabling others to do the same. While at the EJI memorial I experienced many of the forebodings so eloquently expressed by Mr. Anderson and can only hope and work ceaselessly fir fhe day when white citizens of this nation in enormous numbers are able to truly grieve what we our ancestors have done and what we continue to do, to grieve it so deeply and truly that our hearts and eyes are opened to becoming the human beings we were meant to be.

  2. Thank you. I agree totally. The voyeurism is counterproductive and reinforces the dehumanization of black people, strips the victims of their dignity, and perpetuates our objectification.

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful perspective. Your article makes me hope two things. One, that it gets picked up by an entity with broader circulation (can you submit it to the NYT?), and also that you consult with Bryan Stephenson and EJI. Our country desperately needs truth and reconciliation so badly; seems that the two of you could steer us that direction. Grace and gratitude to you.

  4. Brilliant and thought provoking article by Mr. Anderson. It makes me think about the interactive opportunities at Holocaust memorials, meant to encourage visitors to empathize with the victims. I don’t know if they are also misused by visitors. We are planning a visit to the EJI Memorial and hope to see all the visitors there being respectful and thoughtful of the injustice represented there. We will not snap happy photos in the presence of soil taken from lynching sites, nor other smiling selfies.

  5. I appreciate Mr. Anderson’s cautionary article. It is too easy for white-identified people like myself to view racial terrorism as acts of the past removed from our lives and our responsibility. As I prepare to lead a group of psychotherapists to Montgomery, I will remind us that merely bearing witness to past racist atrocities without committing to confront racial violence today (education, healthcare, criminal justice) renders us complicit.

  6. It seems to me that part of the problem is that such monuments perhaps implicitly convey that what they depict is “in the past”. This could give a white American visitor the reassurance of being beyond such behavior, and somehow not part of the lineage of their racial and/or ethnic progenitors, and thus allowed to be an innocent spectator (voyeur) upon the past. At that point, there is no lesson or chastening that takes place with the experience of looking, and the black body is object once again.

    I think a very negative part of all of this is that it can serve to exacerbate and reinforce the sense of “us” and “them”. A black visitor can see a white visitor taking a photo, and be left with a sense of commodification and voyeurism, regardless of whether the white visitor is a naive American descendant of slave owners (please note: I am not here referring to the first person to comment on this thread, who does not seem naive!) feeling absolved of ancestral sins, or an Eastern European journalist creating a travelogue about contemporary American racism.

    Thank you to Mr. Anderson for this article and for quoting Theodore Foster, who elucidates that the narrative of “the power of liberal democracy, the state, and the market to overcome racial violence and celebrate the triumph of racial progress” is a form of whitewashing that serves to advance the interests of capital and neoliberalism. I think we need incisive criticism and clarity about the narratives that affect Americans of all skin colors, in order to understand where we have come from, where we are, and where we should be going.

  7. Having had the opportunity to meet with Bryan Stevenson in Montgomery and hear about his personal involvement with the development of both the Memorial and Legacy Museum, my own visits were not about voyeurism or only “the past.” Given the focus of EJI’s ongoing work, I feel that both these sites provide ways for people to confront their own attitudes toward the truths presented.

  8. I can’t think of many organizations doing more to combat present-day racial injustices than the Equal Justice Initiative (or the Southern Poverty Law Center, also in Montgomery, and also featuring a memorial — to 40 martyrs of the civil rights movement), but I recall Bryan Stevenson making clear that part of the motivation for the EJI memorial was to get people to acknowledge the magnitude of past racial violence so they would recognize and work against the ongoing legacies of slavery and segregation. A quarter-million people have reportedly visited the EJI memorial in its first eight months. The ones — white and black — I’ve heard talking about their visits describe being profoundly moved by the solemn sacredness of the site. And they say they are returning to their home communities newly motivated to speak out, to act, to vote, and to protest against racist violence in all its forms, whether perpetrated by white supremacists or by institutions. To me, the EJI memorial seems an agent of both awareness and change. That it is also a powerful, gut-wrenching work of art is a bonus. I don’t see any commodification in it. Quite the opposite, in fact.

  9. We visited the EJI museum and memorial yesterday, and we thought that unlike other like Civil Rights Memorials, this one was not a celebration of how far our nation has come in overcoming racism. If you have heard any of the interviews with Bryan Stevenson, or read his work, his motivation is to make Americans confront the history of racial violence, and to show how it is woven into the fabric of our present. Memorials like these are necessary for the education of the public. Otherwise, only an elite group will have the tools to understand, and even their understanding will be academic.
    Anita Faulding
    Mel Grizer
    Susie Hoffman

  10. Today in Sydney I see another display of William Kentridge work, the creative multi-faceted S African raised cultural performer, in art, theatre, opera and film.
    Almost a one man art movement.
    The theme, “That which we should remember”.
    So he explores injustice in his former home country, also under Soviet Russia and beyond.
    The whole matter of “memory” is obviously vital.
    But it’s hard work. Recollection, recall, presentations in museums etc will always only be approximate, part of the truth.
    Main criterion should be striving for full and frank honesty.
    Thus, for example, as regards slavery I think it’s important the role of other blacks in Africa co-operating with the white slavers should be tabled.
    Meanwhile, notwithstanding our correspondent’s qualms about how some customers behave, I think that these full and frank displays of past injustice are absolutely vital.
    I have read a lot of US history in recent times, and blogged a lot at major media sites. Thus it seems absolutely clear that many Americans still cannot, will not, face the reality of past ugly, violent racism, per AA and also native Americans.
    Striking therefore is how the newly independent country quickly and comprehensively betrayed its grand Enlightenment infused founding principles, “all men created equal” etc.

  11. I have not visited the EJI memorial. But when I saw the plans and images of it initially, I was as struck with its power as I haven’t been since I saw those of Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial. As an artist, I was seeing the rare distillation of primal emotional force in a way that involves the viewer’s own physical experiencing. Both position the viewer within the experience. Maya Lin leads us to the grave and reflects our bodies onto the names who, due to our own culpability, now lie there. The EJI memorial, too, leads us downward but now our victims move from a crownd about us to hang above us where we cannot help but feel the threat of the massive coreten weights upon us. It is not looked back at from a distant future but as a burden we still labor under.

    I have since visited the Vietnam Memorial and I took pictures there. Not selfies to prove I went but pictures of how other visitors were receiving the work. I wanted to be able to better explain how art can be a subtle, abstract, and powerful force in our country’s contemporary life, not just it’s history.

    I agree that gift shops, souvenirs and photo opportunities are generally distasteful and degrading to such experiences and the messages. But unless we set attendance regulations for behavior, dress, photo taking and the like (as the Vatican does), we have to accept that not all who come will be receptive, respectful and thoughtful. Some insensitive louts may have been drug along as well. But a memorial which attempts to move and enlighten all the visitors, rather than just memorialize history, beats another bronze statue on a pedestal in the middle of a roundabout. And as this forum demonstrates, it can spark a different kind of conversation as well.

  12. I’m not sure how I feel about this article. First off, I haven’t visited the memorial. However, in your anger, you assume the white visitor who is making the photographs shares the same intention as those whites who photographed lynchings back in the 19th and 20th century. That’s simply not fair, and probably not true.

    1. We don’t really know what everyone’s intentions are. However, both the lynchings and the memorials were or are shows, and people’s interactions to them seem rather similar, among then, to take pictures, especially of oneself at the object or event, I suppose to portray oneself as a certain kind of person or get evidence that one knocked it off one’s tourist list. I think it’s reasonable to question how the object or event is functioning, especially in the case of commercialized memorials or exhibitions like the World Trade Center memorial ($24 per person).

  13. It would be interesting to do a study where a researcher interviews people taking photos in the memorial. You could sit down with them, scroll through their camera/phones and go over their reasoning for taking the pictures.

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