Two weeks ago, on April 26, 2018, the Legacy Museum and Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama, funded by the Equal Justice Institute. This is the only museum and memorial in this nation dedicated to the victims of the crime of lynching. The memorial is a large building, open to the outdoors, in which steel cases or boxes hang from the ceiling, and, it is said, when you enter the memorial, you are walking among these weathered steel cases. But as you proceed, the ground under you recedes slightly and you find the steel cases are hanging higher and higher above you, until the metaphor is clear. The steel cases hang above your head like the bodies of the 4400 men and women lynched in the South before 1950 and hanging from the limbs of trees in black-and-white photographs which all of us have seen. The steel boxes have the names of as many of the persons as are available. There is one box for each county in which lynches took place.
It seems, from the pictures, to be a large memorial, but it is not large enough to be seen from space. Not as large, say, as the Great Pyramid of Cheops, which can be seen from space and which holds the mortal remains of one Pharaoh of Egypt, even though the Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery memorializes 4400 men and women.
According to the published statements of the EJI and according to comments posted on the web, the museum takes its place in the national debate over who we are. Did we really own slaves? Did we really treat other humans like that? When did that stop? Did lynching succeed slavery or did it happen at least partially at the same time? When did lynching stop? Did it ever stop? Was the murder of Emmet Till a lynching? And should all the murders of black people in recent years by white officials really be called lynchings?
The answers to all these questions are yes, yes, 1863, partially at the same time, well uh…, no, yes, yes.
If an astronaut turned his camera toward earth, he would see the same lovely blue marble as is seen in Earthrise, but he wouldn’t see the way we have treated each other. Neither would a traveller from deep space see how we have treated each other. Despite Star Trek and all the other science fiction stories there are out there, those in space are not going to know or care about our fights here on earth. What gives Mrs. O’Brien’s grief meaning is that it is she who grieves, and the people around her know. I lost my son. And what the people of the Equal Justice Institute have done in Montgomery in the memorial is to say, We know these men and women were murdered by angry mobs. We know this happened. Now all the rest of you must acknowledge it too. This is what humans have done. We must remember.
This is an effect of the memory, and it raises the question, Why must we remember? It is not merely that we remember so we won’t do it again—won’t lynch men from trees or whatever the crime is—and so they can’t do it to us again, but we remember because we need to know ourselves. We are the biological organisms who seek to exterminate our fellow species-members, and we are the biological organisms who are regularly extinguished by our fellow species-members. This is unanswerable. And we must remember because our memory tells us what we are capable of doing and being, and what we are capable of, we do, that is, we are murderers and the victims of murderers. We are also many other things—our species created the Mozart Requiem, the Belvedere Torso, the Taj Mahal—and if we are going to remember, and we will remember, we cannot help that because our memory is built into what we are. We are going to have to remember David and the men and women whose names are on those weathered steel boxes hanging from the roof of the Memorial to Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. We cannot pick and choose, remember some things but not others. We cannot choose when we will remember or what we will remember. We cannot choose to remember.
I have told my husband, that I will go anywhere with him to live as long as that place has a great library and a great museum. Libraries and museums are two depositories of memory in our culture. In museums, we remember how El Greco saw saints, how Turner saw slave ships, how Sargent saw Thomas McKellar. In big museums, we remember everything. All the museums together are our collective memory. This is the way men and women saw themselves and their lives. And an individual, standing in a gallery, cannot be human and, at the same time, refuse to remember. The woman in the painting with the big gray wig, the jewelry, the long dress, and the tiny pointed shoes, is one of us. One of the points of travel and of education is to broaden one’s perspective, to expand one’s point of view to include different cultures, different time periods, different aspects of culture. It is an inescapable part of our personhood, that we seek to know about each other.
Dylan Jones, writing in Attitude, says that young queer people shouldn’t be obliged to care about LGBT history and that’s the biggest sign of our political success there is. Well, this has been said before and is said wherever and whenever LGBTQ people gather. So much has changed, such important changes have been made, that the past has nothing to do with our lives. But it is not the only thing being said. Lance Richardson, writing in Slate, in a piece entitled, Family Jewels, How a box of queer artifacts from 1963 helped make sense of my gay life today, attacks the heart of the matter when he opens the box and discovers what is inside and how deeply the objects affect his own gay life fifty years later. The History Projects around the country are evidence of the wind blowing. There is, here in Boston, an archive of Gay and Lesbian History. And it is important to remember that women, people of color, and every other minority have come to a point in their progress to full-fledged American citizenship, when they realize it is important to remember their history, when they started writing books, poetry, histories, novels, and making movies or composing songs. In every minority the third wave of their progress, after civil disobedience in the streets, and after the initial legislative and judicial progress has been made, has consisted of an intense look at themselves, answering the question, How is it for you there? and How did you get here? In Boston there is a monument to Notable Women on Commonwealth Avenue and the monument to the 54th Volunteer Regiment across from the State House, and now, in Montgomery, there is the Monument to Peace and Justice. As we are human, we cannot stop remembering.
The LGBTQ communities have not yet reached this point. The central event in LGBTQ literature is a person’s coming out. We get that over and over, and that would be OK if a person lived in a culture which was perfectly OK with gay people and where gay people have never been abused by persons in authority. But we don’t live in a culture like that. Even though we have marriage equality, the press regularly abuses gay people and we read reports on anti-gay murders and physical and emotional abuse. Abuse of gay people has not ended with the arrival of marriage equality, and that means that LGBTQ people have much to acknowledge from the past and from the present.
One of the principal modes of memory is the written word. Poems. Novels. Histories. Plays. But in our community—the LGBTQ community—we don’t seem to be interested in exploring ourselves or, even less, our past. Ten years or so ago, people in the publishing industry said that the market for gay books had vanished. Then, a little later, I was told that the market for gay books had collapsed. Gay bookstores across the country have closed. Boston doesn’t have even one any more. Gay bars close. People continue to read—beach reading largely, beautiful boys falling in love with beautiful boys—but they don’t read on the order of the Monument to Peace and Justice. Look at our recent major movies. Brokeback Mountain, Moonlight, Call Me by Your Name. All about coming out. Nothing that tells us who we have been and how we got here. We don’t seem interested.
This is about life on Earth as we live it on a planet in space. How should we live? What should we do? I think we should visit the Memorial for Peace and Justice and learn about lynching, but we should also learn about our past, learn what we have done, learn what has been done to us, learn our place in the universe.
This is the second of a series of blog posts about reading and writing and about my books and, of course, about the LGBTQ community, who are riding on planet Earth along with everyone else as it falls through space.