Monday, March 23, 2015

The Canvas 3.22.15

Strange Fruit

In the summer of 1930 in Marion Indiana, three black men Thomas Shipp, Abram Smith and James Cameron were accused of the murder of a white man and the rape of his girlfriend. Later that night, a white crowd broke into the prison and lynched Shipp and Smith, hanging them from a tree in the town courtyard. Smith struggled, so they broke his arms before they hung him. James Cameron was able to escape.

Local photographer Lawrence Beitler was present and took a photograph of the white crowd milling underneath the bodies. This is the photograph. (I am putting it in as a link because it is a disturbing image and I didn't want to spring it on you unprepared.)

The photograph became a phenomenon. Beitler put it on postcards. He sold thousands in a few days. This is the photograph that inspired Jewish schoolteacher Abel Meeropol (also, strangely enough, he was later the adoptive father of the Rosenbergs' children) to write a poem that Billie Holiday would later make famous through song:

Supposedly this is the last recorded lynching, which seems like a pretty blatant untruth to me. The photo isn't even all that unusual; a simple google search turns into a grisly and sobering prospect. But this one has something, a clarity of moment. Some faces are blurred, others you can't forget. The man in the center, pointing upwards, is the obvious face of the crowd, but the small group on the side, a young man, laughing, stooped over a couple of young women, is almost as haunting. Even more haunting are the recordings that exist of later interviews with the people there.

At some point you must confront this. Not to inure yourself to it, never that, but to see this outside of a textbook, outside of a series of numbers. These are the skeletons in our closet, but the bodies are still so fresh that you can still smell them decomposing. Look at the tears in their clothing, the blood streaming from their noses. Feel the moment of terrible sadness follow you onto the stairs, onto the street, onto the subway. Feel the blood at our roots.

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