The coronavirus pandemic seems to have made reading more popular than ever; the murder of George Floyd has made it more important. There are so many exceptional books that document Black lives and the history of America’s unrelenting subjugation of people of color. I’ll be highlighting here the ones that have been particularly helpful to me in understanding the hundreds of years that have led to this moment, and how white people can be better allies from this point onward.
For my first post here in a looooong time, I really want to recommend this book, 100 Years of Lynchings by Ralph Ginzburg, which I read a few years ago and have never forgotten.
It was originally published in 1962 and it simply, but powerfully, consists of reprints from American newspapers from 1880 to 1961 of articles – many just a paragraph – detailing the lynching of Black Americans by white Americans.There is no commentary, no additional details added, and no editing of the language used (except for clarity). The reports are taken from newspapers across the country, conservative and liberal, southern and northern, some published by Black people and white abolitionists, and many others unabashedly racist.
The first article in the book is from the April 17, 1880 edition of the New York Truth Seeker and reads:
“FIRST NEGRO AT WEST POINT KNIFED BY FELLOW CADETS
WEST POINT, N.Y., Apr. 15 – James Webster Smith, the first colored cadet in the history of West Point, was recently taken from his bed, gagged, bound, and severely beaten, and then his ears were slit. He says that he cannot identify his assailants. The other cadets claim that he did it himself.”
It is striking, in even the briefest of articles like the above, how many feelings, reactions, truths and lies are contained within.
The book ends by driving home the magnitude of the violence with page after page of names and ages of Black lynching victims – 5,000 in total and still only a partial representation of all the nation’s victims of lynching.
It’s a tough read and demands an intelligent and analytical reader who will take the time to determine the source, consider what the truth of the article is likely to be, and read between the lines for what may have been left out. But it is such a clear narrative of our country’s relentless violence against Black people and society’s responses and how it continues to this day, just in different forms.