We need a Foucault pop-up doll to appear whenever we once again, after again and again, exert control over the bodies of Black men and boys. We, as a culture worldwide and particularly in the US, violate Black men and boys’ rights—individual and collective—to the full human experience. In the first instance—denying life by murdering, assassinating, and lynching Black bodies. The daily repeated microaggressions turn into the perpetual traumatic stress of survival.
As a white, Midwestern daughter, I experience racism’s pangs in my family raising a mixed race daughter. As a mother, I hear the all-too-regular stories of my daughter, her father, and her husband. One night in downtown DC after a concert at the Warner Theater, my daughter walked to her car. Her father had reached the car before she did. My daughter found her father pressed up against the car by police who were questioning him and asking for ID. When she said he was her father, they continued as if they could not bear to be wrong.
As a teacher, I hear similar stories of racism from my students—Black men and boys whose gifts are a treasure in and for our society. I see and attempt to counter the ways that Black boys and young men are mistreated in our punishing and oppressive school discipline systems.
Then I read about the appeal for help to the federal government from five Black men in Kentucky during the time of Reconstruction as 147 persons were lynched in the state between 1865 and 1876. By striking terror into hearts and minds, lynching extended what could no longer be accomplished by enslaving. I remember the first time I learned about the African kingdoms and Mansa Musa. I recall the story of Ida B. Wells, a heroine whose story I taught as a history teacher.
Because I want the unknown names of the victims of lynching to be memorialized, remembered, counted, as an artist and a history teacher and a memory keeper, I make quilts for each state—often several quilts for some states—to remember the thousands of men and women lynched in America. Not just in the south, not just Black men and women—controlling Black people was the impetus for the heinous acts. Using the state tree as the central image for each quilt, I make a leaf or a pine needle or a palm frond for each person and inscribe each name on the quilt back. The project “The Lynching Trees: Leaves of Redemption for America” exemplifies what James Cone says, “When we remember, we give voice to the victims… the lynching tree reveals the true religious meaning of the cross of American Christianity today…and the cross and the lynching tree can help us know from where we have been and where we must go.”
I am often asked: When did lynching end? It hasn’t; it is ever present. We see state-sponsored lynching in the streets of America and in the criminal justice system. Or I am asked: What is it like to do this work? One long prayer of redemption to face the history that James Baldwin asks us to face—“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced”—in the great hope that we can face the horrors of our collective history, engage in truth and reconciliation and reparations, and redeem a possible future for our country. I want to be part of this generation of American patriots who say enough is enough.