Guilt we can bear

Reading My Grandmother’s Hands and Pr17A

Menakem starts Chapter 16 of his book with a reflection on lynching and lynching postcards. From 1882 to 1968 there were 4,783 lynchings in the U.S.1  Often the scenes were photographed and made into postcards. It was a big business. 

If you can bear to look at a lynching postcard you will see a group of white men posing as happy hunters around the mutilated body of a black man. Nearby there will be a crowd of white women, children and family members smiling and relaxing. Would you identify with anyone in that picture?

The “anti-woke” movement assures white people that they need not identify with anyone in that photo. No one today need feel “guilt, anguish or other form of psychological distress”2 on account of what somebody else did 50 or 150 years ago, whether it was enslavement or lynching.

Here’s the problem.  As a white person, I am shaped by many of the same influences and forces that moved those other white people. Like them, I have white privilege. Like them, I live in a culture powered and sustained by white privilege.3 And like the white people in the lynching postcard, I am susceptible to the dynamics of anti-black racism and crowd psychology.

It is no answer to say that “such a thing could never happen now.” Such things do happen now.  Ahmaud Arbery.  Nine members of the Bible study at Mother Emmanuel. Ten shoppers at Tops Friendly Market, in Buffalo.  Residents of Flint, Michigan. The persistent racial wealth gap. Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss. If there had been picture taken of me as I was walking on the sidewalk near George Floyd, pinned down with a police knee on his neck, what would I be doing in the picture? I am not sure, and that worries me.

Not all feelings of guilt, anguish or fear should be avoided. The knowledge giving rise to those feelings can help us, like the learned instinct that keeps us from touching a hot stove again. Knowing that white people in a racist culture can reflexively fear a black person for reasons that have nothing to do with that person is a good thing to know. Knowing that white people can hunt down and kill or injure a black person believing they have the right to do so is a good thing to know.  The dynamics of anti-black racism,  white supremacy and the power of crowd psychology are important things to know. Uncomfortable. Psychologically distressing. Maybe even guilt-inducing if we have seen those things at work in ourselves. But they are necessary things to know if we are going to try to make those things different. Uncomfortable feelings will come with that knowledge. And we will need to bear them.

There will inevitably be talk of crosses this Sunday. Perhaps we can use the gospel reading as an opportunity to reflect on where the crosses and lynching trees are in our world. If we imagine a photo being taken of a modern-day cross/lynching scene, where would we be in the photo? If we are still feeling uncomfortable about our answer, then maybe the next question is what do we need to do now to prepare our white selves for a different result?

1Source: NAACP

2Language from Florida’s 2022 Stop W.O.K.E. Act.

3As Menakem says, progressive white people benefit from the structural inequities of white supremacy just like white conservatives and white supremacists. My Grandmother’s Hands at 167.

Photo by Bailey Alexander on Unsplash