monuments and memorials and me
“The way to write wrongs is to shine the light of truth upon them” --Ida B. Wells, anti-lynching activist
So I have been working on a piece for some time now. It all started last December, when I went to Montgomery to meet and hear from Bryan Stevenson with some people from Red Letter Christians. I could not get out of my mind what I saw/heard in Montgomery, and I knew precisely what audience would need to hear this message.
This piece turned out to be one of the hardest things I have ever written. Not only because the subject matter is grim, but also because it was a delicate balance of compromise and caveats to get the message in a manner that would reach the people who needed to hear it the most. If you are new to me or my writing (or if you have never met me in real life) then you might not know: I am not good at compromise, at least not at first. I have a lot of emotion, a lot of thoughts, I am always wanting to do good and right by my actual neighbors who have experienced so much oppression, and so sometimes toning down my message or making it palatable can feel like a disservice to the people I love. It is a constant struggle, especially as an Enneagram 1 who so longs to be right and correct. But when it comes to being a white girl writing about race/lynchings/monuments/memorials/evangelical Christians in America--there is simply no way for me to be right. So writing this article over the past seven months was like a spiritual discipline in humiliation and sorrow and grief and fear.
It became important for me to include in this this story both a concrete action and highlight racial terror in the PNW. I was born in northern California and grew up all over the “west”—Alaska and Wyoming and California again, but the majority of my life has now been spent in Oregon. People from this part of the country tend to view themselves as distanced, both by geography and ideology, to the rest of the US, but most particularly the South.
So when I researched lynchings in my state I found one on record. That number is small compared to other states and counties (Mississippi has over 580 lynchings on record, for instance) but there is a reason for that: in 1849 the legislature made it a law that “no negro or mulatto may enter into, or reside” in Oregon. The pacific northwest made it clear they didn’t want institutional slavery, but they also didn’t want to live alongside African-Americans. The laws had their intended exclusionary effect—even to this day, less than 2% of Oregon is black (for more on Oregon and our history of racial injustice, read this piece).
I knew that I had grown up in a state that had criminalized blackness from the start, and that I needed to do something to acknowledge a history that had been ignored and forgotten, brushed aside as we instead celebrated the “pioneer” spirit while overlooking the pain and trauma of both the original inhabitants (native Americans) and our exclusionary practices towards non-white citizens.
Writing this piece was like falling down a rabbit hole of all that I didn’t know. I am not an expert in this field and I don’t pretend to be. What I am is a writer, someone who is interested in things, and I became very, very interested in why so many of us grew up without hearing or understanding the history of lynchings in America. (And lynchings is only a small part of it--there were massacres and lack of civil rights such as voting and education . . . the history of racial injustice seemingly has no end). A few years ago, when it really started to sink in about both the realities of lynchings and the response of white Christian communities to them, it was like a veil had been lifted. But I wasn’t just horrified. I was implicated. Lynchings were not just public executions--they were strategies for terrorizing black people and for uniting white people under a banner of supremacy and “order”. One of the most chilling photographs is one from Marion, Indiana in 1930. How can I not see my own face reflected here?
(Side note: an artist created a mural of this same cropped portion of the photograph--leaving out the men who were hanging from the tree--and recently there has been activity to take down this mural due to white discomfort. But the artist wanted to portray just how it is that ordinary people are the ones who perpetuate and uphold racial violence in the US. These conversations are continuing, and need to be had--but will not go anywhere until we can face our true history).
I’m amazed at the timing of this piece. Last December, when I started writing it in my head, I did not know that we would be having a national conversation about monuments and memorials. But I am glad we are. And more than anything, I pray that we listen to the voices of the people who have been the victims of racial terror, both past and present, and take their lead on this. Bryan Stevenson is a good place to start, but there are so many others out there. I encourage you to find these voices, sit yourself down, and listen for a good long while. Any then, when the Spirit tells you it is time, I implore you to go out to your own community and share all that you have learned.
If you are like me and want to start to re-learn the history of our country, I encourage you to start with the Equal Justice Initiative. Spend some time at their website, learning, looking at pictures. Watch the video for the new memorial (it will give you chills). Consider asking your church to send a group of leaders and lay pastors to travel to Montgomery to visit the new memorial and embark on a spiritual pilgrimage of remembrance and repentance (perhaps forgo a mission trip to Mexico and use your funds for this instead?). And then I encourage you to start looking into the history of racial violence in your own state, city, and county. There are spiritual ramifications to our history, often done in the name of Christ. We will not be able to move forward into repair until we have dealt with this.
Read Ida B. Wells (my new crush!) who was a pioneer sounding the alarm so many years ago about the horrific violence systematically being perpetuated against black people in this country.
Read Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson. This book is incredibly impactful, and is story-driven--making it accessible to most everyone.
Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race by Emerson and Smith. Perhaps the most important book that looks at why evangelicals are so segregated and so unwilling to address the systematic factors of racism. I wish everyone would sit down and read this one.
The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone. This book might be the most excruciating devotional on the suffering of Christ I have ever experienced--because it is made concrete in the sufferings of our black brothers and sisters in America.
Trouble I’ve Seen by Drew G. Hart: This book helps makes connections between our history and the present day experience of people of color in America. A must-read for Christians who want to engage.
Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith: I so appreciated this book for helping people walk through the steps of confronting our history (in several different areas) and walking through prayers of confession and repentance.
RAAN Network. This is a great place to go if you don’t have real life relationships with Christians of color. I am not reformed, but my faith has been revitalized by the voices I have found here--especially Jemar Tisby, Tyler Burns, and Ekemini Uwan (of the amazing Truth’s Table podcast). There have been multiple discussions about confederate monuments, modern-day lynchings, and more and I cannot encourage you enough to go dive into these resources.
Thank you for taking the time to read, prayer, and process these topics. Please share any of your favorite resources in the comments. I know that I still have so much re-learning to do.