Reading Lynched: The Power of Memory in a Culture of Terror

It’s as important to record reflections about my reading of Lynched as it is my own context for having read the book. I’ll start with my context because it sets the stage for my critical appreciation and my eventual scholarly appropriation of Dr. Sims’s work.

First, I’ve spent the last ten weeks reading and writing in the areas of Black and Womanist Theologies and African American Political Theology, and while those terms can be expansive in what they cover academically, it’s important to state those two courses as broad but immediate readying agents in my thinking about what happens in this book about Black people living in and in response to a culture of lynching. The book could easily be on the syllabi for either course. A Womanist scholar, Sims adds to the collective a historical reading of a time that’s not seen enough in the United States of American history.

Lynched is worth reading if for nothing other than its relevance to issues that many Black people are still facing around policing, community engagement, race, and political discourse. It’s relevant because as people we continue to be subjected to explicit legalized and legally authorized brutality in the form of newly designed lynching strategies, including police who still participate in the heartless, legally indefensible murder of Black bodies, while being shielded by and in some cases lauded by the governing bodies in place to protect citizens. I intend that as a theological comment even if it can be read from a particularly psychological, sociological, or ethical point of view. Lynching and living in response to it is a theological matter. As so is the support of persons who do the lynching of Black persons.

Second, aside from my current reading list, like every Black person in this country, I’ve spent the last several years participating to varying degrees in the anguish, contentment, alarm, prayerfulness, silence, and soul-bruising nature of this environment leading to our deaths. I say “our” in order to point to the corporate nature of how the long list of boys, girls, women, and men who have died as absolutely unwilling participants in the culture of lynching that pervades this country. I, like every other Black person, am recipient of the chronic, even if unseen, pain that comes from being Black and being alive, being Black and loving, being Black and wondering, being Black and hoping, being Black and quitting, being Black and fighting, being Black and parenting, being Black and serving, being Black and leading, being Black and going to the barbershop, being Black and grocery shopping for my family, being Black and driving through the suburbs, being Black and watching women clutch their purses at the sight of me, being Black and opening my empty hands when I see the police so that they see there’s nothing in them, being Black and holding my beautiful boys as much as I can while being Black.

Coming to this reading while Black was like coming to the notes of an aunt who wrote important things down, things that she said over and over while I was small but that she knew I’d listen to differently when the milk was no longer behind my ears. I’ve told you about the book already, though from a decidedly current and autobiographical sketch. That’s part of the power and beauty of a book like Lynched. It anchors you, if you’re Black, in a part of your story that you know intimately and may not be able to explicate.

That said, Dr. Sims pursued a project to conduct an oral history of experiences of lynching, inviting and meeting 50 persons from Virginia, South Carolina, New Jersey, Nebraska, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, California, Pennsylvania, and Alabama. Participants in her project were at least 70 years old, and she was interested in learning why people did or didn’t discuss lynching; how a culture of lynching influenced their understanding of justice or faith; and what those participants wanted future generations to know.

As she sets out onto this psychologically taxing and uplifting quest, Sims makes early notes about the ways participants first responded. People were cool to respond to church announcements promoting her study. She wondered about this and said that silence served purposes for Black elders. For some, silence was an expression of fear. For others, silence served to preserve life. The fear was not always acknowledged; it was subconscious and underneath the quiet of Black people. Fear motivated the silence as did life preservation.

In terms of preservation, when lynching wasn’t discussed and silence kept, Dr. Sims approached people directly in churches for instance, knowing that they were old enough and that their church was involved with justice long enough, so that there would be some story to tell. Those folks wouldn’t approach her always, she said, and that was to engage in any number of “countercultural techniques” like mentoring students, teaching literacy to adults, providing scholarships, and promoting arts rather than to deal directly with the bruising subject of lynching. There are those “public and private responses to moral issues” that Sims puts forward from her interviews (8).

Her stake is about the immense value of language, and stories in particular as a form of language, and its use “to minimize the gravity of lynching and the countless lives forever disrupted as a result of this practice” (16). What a comment! There is gravity. There is the impact upon countless lives. There is the longstanding word forever that names the existential disruption. There is the sad reference of the fitting word practice that captures it all. My sense from Sims is that it is uncommon to talk about lynchings, how they were publicized, how lynchings were cultural events paraded as spectacles which were government-sanctioned in order to produce terror in Black people and in Black communities and to assuage white communities by virtue of those communities’ uses of this perverted, brutal mechanism even while those white (people in) communities were community leaders like police, pastors, and politicians. The book gives insight into how hard it is to discuss this culture and why Black folks do and don’t jump into the conversation. And why whites don’t either.

For Sims, “These oral histories can serve as entry points to provide the human community another frame of reference from which to examine diverse ways in which notions of civility frame narratives that offer insights about these individuals’ human capacity to make a conscious decision to go into their interior archives and determine for themselves, if, or how, they will give voice to a truth that reflects their lived reality” (33). These are contexualized analyses and constructed “alternative responses” by the people who experienced these remembered atrocities turned “cultural symbols and their embedded meanings” (66).

Throughout my reading I came to basic questions about inspecting images offered in media and education and mining the relationship between images and symbols which are those deep, abiding, hardly changeable understandings of Black people. The symbols emerge after the use and spread of images over centuries. It’s hard to see lynching as both legally wrong and morally unacceptable when centuries teach you that Black people are worthy of death, even public, gruesome government-supported death. These are character questions and cultural questions. They are critical issues that make you, whoever you are, turn and ask what you really believe about people.

This is a book about remembering rightly. It faces the direction of remembering parts of history that are not seen or not regarded and about courage that isn’t either. One main attribute that Sims lifts is “an ethic of resilient resistance” and her oral histories enact “an ability to name and respond to evil in a manner that challenges practices that are neither just nor fair” (124). In summarizing the histories as an ethic, she promotes a truer reading of what happened and what happens during lynchings. Sims offers an alternative to naming silence or speech as resilient acts of resistance against the culture of lynching.

She also includes material about how Black folk are a people just as engaged in an “ethic of forgiveness,” an ethic that can’t be held without the aforementioned resistance. After all, how can Black folk forgive without also resisting the brutal murders bringing up the need for such forgiveness? Who would suggest the need to forgive without a prior acknowledgment of the God-made flesh and humanity of the murdered? It’s important that both are in the book and that forgiveness is after the former. Also, Sims makes all the interviews public. Look into her notes to find the wide trail to them.

In terms of my critique, I don’t think Sims goes far enough with her employment of the liturgical review of baptism. It’s clear that she’s leaning toward the historical and that she wants to respect her interviewees while not forcing a theological reading upon their work. I think she wants their words to shine rather than her interpretation of them. Still, I think she could have added a chapter to work out her own theological renderings of the interviews. She hints at this, of course, saying “the act of remembering is symbolized as a ritual of baptism—not a literal baptism by water, but a symbolic immersion that plunged and invited me to journey with participants into repressed, suppressed, reconfigured, and ritualized memories as they remembered lynching and a culture of lynching…” (5). Sims’s work is a social-cultural-religious approach to these primary narratives as sources of discovery and meaning. These narratives are gifts that Sims gives us, grants us access to, and it’s important that others come along to work with these narratives as they’re presented. I don’t fault Sims for her not dealing for pointedly with theological matters. I respect what she’s set out to do. She’s left more to be done, rather for her next works or for those of us picking up this book and living with it in our memories.

If you read this book and find it interesting to your soul; if you read it and you want to step into similar reads, I’d commend James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree, M. Shawn Copeland’s Enfleshing Freedom, Kelly Brown Douglas’s Stand Your Ground and Terrance Johnson’s Tragic Soul-Life. These are not fun reads. Like Lynched, they are important, sobering theological works that help ground us further in the basic reality of Blackness that is faced with both uncertainty and deep certainty.

Those books, like Lynched, will remind you of what Howard Thurman called the “place for the singing of angels.” He was writing into our memories the way Thurman does about the truths recognized over and over. In Deep is the Hunger, Thurman described what is underneath these kinds of works. “Despite all the crassness of life, despite all the hardness of life, despite all the harsh discords of life, life is saved by the singing of angels” (p. 92). That’s the kind of spirit underneath the oral histories of Sims’s project. Her interviews possess the spoken words, the hard-won melodies, and the unshakeable echoes of Black people who in the face of their own harsh discords decided to speak and to sing. May the Listener of our prayers encourage us to keep speaking, to keep singing, and to keep listening to our beautiful selves. And may in that collective chorus, we move toward transformation.

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