Photo by Leslie Barlow on Wikimedia Commons

A Witness in St. George

Mari N. Crabtree—

The downpour came suddenly, and it was loud. Hours of driving through steady rain had lulled me into believing that the remnants of the most recent hurricane to hit the Carolinas were already dispersing northbound. But in the dark, blinded by the deluge, my heart pounded as SUVs and semis rumbled past my car crawling along the interstate to the first exit where I could wait out the storm. I stopped at a gas station in St. George, South Carolina, a town I knew of only because a former student, Jaylen, had grown up there. George Floyd had taken his final breaths just a few months before Jaylen took my course on anti-Black violence and collective memory, so when, during class introductions, he said his hometown was St. George, I couldn’t help but think about images of a sainted George Floyd with halos and angel wings that had cropped up after his death. That semester Jaylen researched two of the three lynching victims that white mobs in and around St. George had killed in 1904 and 1906—the curiously named General Lee and Willie Spain—and here I was, stranded by the last gasps of a hurricane and within miles of the sites of their deaths. For all I knew I was parked at one of these lynching sites, and the terror of nearly spinning out of control on the interstate gave way to a quiet unease and sadness.

In the United States, we have a long relationship with Black death. Images of Black death were around long before we could watch the video of George Floyd pleading for his life and asking for his mother. Before lynching photographs, and even before cameras came into existence, British colonial authorities gibbeted dead bodies and displayed heads on pikes to warn against insurrections and other subversions of white supremacist rule. In St. George that evening, I couldn’t see the bodies of these Black men but simply knowing of their deaths haunted me—the horror settled in as the rain pounded on my windshield. Even in the absence of their bodies, their presence remained, if not in the land itself then, like mist, hovering somewhere nearby.

The recent tendency to televise videos of Black deaths, often on a loop, and the ubiquity of these videos has led some commentators to argue that, as a society, we have become inured to Black death. They propose, among other things, that we reimagine what we show and how we show it. We certainly need to be thoughtful and deliberate about how we depict and circulate these images, but I want to set that discussion aside for the moment and, instead, think about what we have to become in order to be desensitized to such images. What do we have to do to ourselves for Black death to become routine and unremarkable, whether we are talking about gibbetted bodies, lynching photographs, or police killings caught on video?

In 1741 in the weeks and months after authorities in New York City hanged then gibbeted the alleged leaders of the New York Conspiracy, New Yorkers passed by these dead bodies as they ran errands and visited friends. Many came to gawk at the gruesome spectacle of the bloated bodies slowly decaying. In either case, I wonder what passersby had to do within themselves to be conscious of the decaying bodies of Caesar, York, and John Hughson, make sense of what they saw, then continue on their way—to render them another feature of the lower Manhattan landscape. Did they rationalize these gruesome displays as well-deserved punishment? Did they shake their heads in disgust but allow complacency to get the best of them, telling themselves that this was simply the way things were? Did they shudder and think, thank goodness it’s them, not me? In an age when videos of George Floyd’s death are readily accessible, what do people have to become to shrug off the deaths they watch on their phones or read about in the news before scrolling to the next thing?

Desensitization to Black death, at its root, requires an exchange of one body for another—or, one Black death for the subsequent deaths we encounter. When deaths become interchangeable and indistinct, we cease to feel the weight of each death accumulating, grief piling upon more grief, anger and indignation building, billowing, exploding. Instead, the same body dies again and again—the deaths become routine. With each new death, the sharpness of our reaction dulls and we become numb to suffering, injustice, and the grief of others.

I felt such horror (or at least deep unease and wariness) in that St. George gas station parking lot nearly one hundred and twenty years after these three men were lynched because I haven’t naturalized their deaths into the landscape, even as their deaths and countless others stain this nation’s land and its history. I have spent more than a decade writing about lynching, and despite near constant exposure to deaths that are not only grisly but rooted in the ugliest elements of white supremacy, what has kept me from falling into the inhumanity of making these deaths interchangeable is a praxis of writing whole stories about the victims and survivors of lynching. The reparative work of reconstructing what lynching fragmented through the written word has kept that part of me that feels the weight of each of these deaths alive. For when I extend my narratives of lynching beyond the moment a lynching occurred, so that they stretch into the decades that followed and into generations that made lives in the aftermath of lynchings, it’s difficult for those losses to feel interchangeable, indistinct, and routine.

Mari N. Crabtree is associate professor of African American Studies at the College of Charleston. Crabtree is the author of My Soul Is a Witness: The Traumatic Afterlife of Lynching.

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