In the acclaimed documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” director Raoul Peck takes the words from an unfinished book by James Baldwin and gives them life in the voice of actor Samuel L. Jackson. There is a jarring moment in this stunning 93-minute examination of race in the United States that has stayed with me since I saw it last month.
A rosy-cheeked, perfectly coiffed Doris Day frets in her kitchen with champagne glasses and a bottle of bubbly in the 1961 movie “Lover Come Back” while a sentimental song about love plays in the background. But as the lush music continues, the scene fades to a succession of harrowing black-and-white photos of lynched black men and a black woman. What made these gruesome murders all the more grotesque were the white onlookers posing for pictures under trees festooned with “strange fruit.” Those faces peer back at you as Jackson speaks Baldwin’s powerful words.
“You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourselves. And, furthermore, you give me a terrifying advantage. You never had to look at me. I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me. Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
That scene and particularly that last sentence rang in my ears as I learned that siblings Pat and Jon Stryker donated $10 million to the Memorial to Peace and Justice, the formal name for an institution slated to open in 2018 in Montgomery, Ala. The informal name — the national lynching memorial — gets to the point of the effort by the Equal Justice Initiative, founded by Bryan Stevenson. We, as a nation, must face an ugly past that informs our present and dictates our future.
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“I think a lot of people are afraid to talk about slavery, are afraid to talk about lynching and segregation because they fear they will be punished,” Stevenson said on “PBS NewsHour.” “We don’t have an interest in punishing America for this history, but we don’t believe we can be free until we acknowledge this history.”
The memorial would acknowledge this history by featuring the names of more than 4,000 victims of lynching engraved on 800 concrete columns, each representing a county where a lynching occurred — each a powerful marker of a painful period in our history.
“Our hope is that through this memorial we can acknowledge our country’s history of brutal racial violence,” the Stryker siblings said in a joint statement, “and that increased visibility can help to inform present-day discussions of race relations.” With their gift, the project is within $5 million of EJI’s goal.
“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America,” Jackson says in the eloquent words of Baldwin. “It’s not a pretty story.” But it is a troubling and complex one we all must know and do a better job of understanding. Like the new National Museum for African American History and Culture in Washington, the Memorial to Peace and Justice in Alabama will make that task a little easier.