Some things we don’t talk about.
In Coweta County, Georgia, the Atlanta suburb where I live, items that fall under this category might include slavery, segregation, the Textile Strike of 1934, and most assuredly the public spectacle lynching of Sam Hose that occurred just north of the town of Newnan, our county seat, on April 23, 1899.
There are many reasons not to talk about these things. “How are such discussions productive?” I’ve heard people say. “Why re-open old wounds?” “My ancestors were poor and never even owned slaves.” “How are these things relevant today?” And so on. Discussions of these things could cause discomfort. Think of the families who were affected by these events, or who perpetrated them, whose descendants still live here among us today, locals say. We must be sensitive to their feelings.
But when I read accounts of these events from the past in my role as Executive Director of the Newnan-Coweta Historical Society, I don’t see records of too many people “sensitive to the feelings” of the black child who was told she could not swim in the public pool located on her own street, in her own neighborhood, because of the color of her skin. No one cared what she felt when she was told she could not drink from the public water fountain, or had to read from an outdated, thoroughly-used-up textbook. It seems the feelings of some are more important than the feelings of others. Not long ago someone attached a name to this phenomenon. They call it “white fragility.”
We have a photo from the Sam Hose lynching. After the crowd was done burning him and chopping him to pieces, they proudly photographed themselves with the charred, mutilated corpse. I describe what happened in all its gruesome detail in my new book for The History Press, Coweta County: A Brief History
. (Maybe too much detail. My editors asked me if I might want to scale the descriptions back a bit. But I argued that it’s important to look squarely at what happened, especially since the incident is nationally known and has been the subject of several books.)
The photograph of the lynching is inthe public domain. It’s easy to find. I certainly could have included it in my book.
Ultimately, I chose not to.
Why? Does this not run counter to everything I’ve just said?
For me, it came down to one fact. It wasn’t so much the content of the photo (which was undoubtedly harrowing). It was the fact that the perpetrators took the photograph themselves
and distributed it as a commemoration, and as a warning.
Both literally and figuratively, they framed the event.
In talking about the lynching, and the slavery that preceded it, and the segregation that followed it, I wanted to re-frame it.
To re-frame something, the old frame must be tossed away.
Self-censorship? White fragility? Sensitivity? Maybe. I don’t know.
All I know is this one thing: I would not enshrine this particular artifact here, among these pages.
For more, read the book: Coweta County: A Brief History