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.
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.
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.
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.
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.