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My son's question reacquainted me with my own haunting experience with the history of lynching.

I wasn't even born when Emmett Till was killed, but I remember seeing the photograph

at some point during my childhood. I recall being repelled by and likewise drawn to his image


Books by Carol E. Henderson


James Baldwin's Go tell It on the Mountain: Historical and Critical Essays  / Scarring the Black Body


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A Personal Odyssey

Scarring the Black Body: Race and Representation in African American Literature


By Carol E. Henderson


Before Emmett Till's murder, I had known the fear of hunger, hell and the Devil. But now there was a new fear known to me--the fear of being killed just because I was black. This was the worst of my fears.Anne Mood, Coming of Age in Mississippi


I don't know why the case pressed on my mind so hard--but it would not let me go.James Baldwin, Blues for Mister Charlie


It's like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder 

How I keep from going under.Grandmaster flash and the Furious Five, "The Message"

I conclude this work with a personal odyssey, one that has served as a backdrop to some of the investigations undertaken in this study. It began rather innocently. "Mommie, what's lynching?" I remember that question well, and as I looked into my young son's face, I had to decide whether to preserve his innocence, or tell him about the history of African American men.

My son's question reacquainted me with my own haunting experience with the history of lynching. I wasn't even born when Emmett Till was killed, but I remember seeing the photograph at some point during my childhood. I recall being repelled by and likewise drawn to his image. I remember well the before and after pictures. His face whole and recognizable in one; in the other his eye gouged out, a big hole in his head, a missing ear, and a distorted and disfigured face ten times its normal size. It was horrifying to think that people were actually capable of doing this to a child. Although time and region separated me from Emmett's experience, my awareness of his murder came from knowing that he was just a child, a young boy of fourteen who had gone south to visit family and friends for the summer. I had also spent many summers in the South, visiting grandparents and relatives for months at a time, often oblivious to the regional and cultural differences.

I never really feared gangs growing up in Los Angeles; never thought much about the surrounding tuff wars allegedly consuming the neighborhood I once lived in; never thought much about becoming another victim of the war called poverty. But the Till murder was different. That murder frightened me. Maybe it was the vengeance with which two grown men exercised their right over the body of a "free" black youth. Maybe it was the historical proximity, a murder twenty years young at that time in my life. As I was completing the work for this project, I experienced the same twisted anxiety of my childhood. I could not look at Till's photograph for any length of time. I remember covering up the image with other pages from the article in which it appeared so that I could concentrate on the cultural implications of his murder, devoid of any emotional attachment or personal reactions to child murder and its aftermath.

But that's hard to do when you're a mother, particularly when you're the mother of an African American child whose gender alone causes others to prejudge him. I have a beautiful son--he's smart, intelligent, and considerate. One of the things I love about him is his inquisitiveness. As I have been writing this book, we've shared interesting conversations about African American history and literature. I think of him as an "old soul," for he seems wise beyond his eleven years.

One of these conversations centered on the topic of lynching. It is customary in my house during black history month for my son to read to me (usually while I'm cooking) from a book of his choice so that we can share information about someone important to African American culture. During this particular session, my son chose to read about Ida B. Wells. His attraction to her was simple: they have the same birth date, and I'm sure he was aware of the fact that I had included her in my study on bodies and scars. Given this kinship, he seemed fascinated by her influence on history and her diligence in extolling the virtues of all men. After reading her brief biography, my son asked me that question, "Mommie, what's lynching?" He was all of nine years old then. I have to admit I was taken aback by the question at first, a little unprepared for addressing such a sensitive and weighty subject. 

Children usually let you know when they are ready to talk, and this question was my obvious signal. I answered his question directly and truthfully. "There used to be a time, honey, when men could come in our house and take you, and string you up to a tree, and hang you, and I would be powerless to prevent it." Silence. "There once was a time when white men would castrate you during that same act because you were who you were." "What's castration, Mommie?" I sighed deeply at this question, but took a deep breath and answered. "Castration is when your private parts are cut off." There was a pained look in his eyes. "Why?" he asked. "Because they are afraid, honey. Afraid of who they are not, and afraid of what you represent," I told him.

Explaining to my son the realities of African American history was as painful as telling him that there is no Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy. More telling is the fact that I did not have to explain to him who the "they" were. He knew. Just like he knew at three years old to scream when he saw the white male police officer approaching my mother's car. He had seen Rodney King's beating on television. I had tried in all honesty to shield him from that experience, but it takes only one time. My son was so terrified that his grandmother was going to be harmed that I had to physically remove him from the car and take him inside the house (my mother was being cited for double-parking in front of my house on a Sunday afternoon). It is uncanny how the unlayering of one wound reveals the contours of another whose festering flesh must be cut away so that, as Sherley Anne Williams explains, the wound can heal completely.

The legacy of Rodney King's beating will always be those haunting images of his assault. My son recognized at once his own black face in those images--not as a criminal but as a wounded body. This primal reaction to black male pain resonates a sounding chord in the cultural memory of African American people. Sandra Gunning is correct when she theorizes that the present-day impulse to map out the history, meaning, and consequence of the figure of the criminalized black male body inevitably leads us back to slavery and post-Reconstruction American culture. My son's early experience with the brutalization of black men led me to tell him my view of the truth about lynching. I had to tell him so that he knows I know of the veil that exists around him. But I also had to tell him so that he knows why he must continue on, why he must do well in school, why he must set an example for those other young brothas who seem unmotivated in life. "Thank goodness we don't live in that time honey," I explained to him. "Black men can't be hung from trees anymore, cannot be lynched anymore because of fear or racial paranoia."

But then three young white men made a liar out of me in some small town in Texas that same year. They dragged an African American man to his death behind an old pickup truck, separating his body from his head, his shoulder from his body, and in the process grinding off kneecaps and testicles. They even stopped to change a tire with James Byrd still attached to the truck by that chain, barely alive but alive. The crime was so heinous I had to look at my calendar again to make sure I hadn't traveled back in time, like Octavia Butler's character Dana, in her novel Kindred, to a period I had only read about in books. And then there was that incident in New York where four white officers emptied their guns into a young African immigrant entering his own apartment complex. Now how do I explain that to an eleven year old?

This is a concern I grapple with daily. It is an awesome experience to be raising an African American child today, particularly if he's a young man. I don't want to end up like Petry's Lutie Johnson, disenchanted and frustrated, leaving my child to the whims of a system that would love to add him to its list of casualties for this century. I don't have to worry about that, though. I have a good support system, like the one Sethe has in Morrison's Beloved, good praying women who surround me with their love and beseech the Creator every day on my and my son's behalf, asking for his protection, praying for our strength and his guidance in our lives. "We need you," they tell me, "for our babies coming up." "Yes, Ma'am," I answer. And their smiles give me that extra strength I need when it seems like "our babies" just ain't gettin it.

I began this study with a personal experience, one that shaped, if not the theoretical focus, then the spiritual focus of this endeavor. I complete this project with an equally challenging prospect: my own "call and response" that centers around the continuous wounding of the African American mind, body, and spirit. I still see that woman in that church, with her scars, with her children. This is the woman I've been speaking for, the one whose name I'll never know. She represents the nameless, wounded spirits I walk among every day. Empty eyes. Soulless. Seeking salve for their wounds, their pain. How, I ask, can the body heal, when the spirit, the very essence of humanity, is continually under attack?

It heals because we write, we tell our stories, we ritualistically "lay bare" before the nation our own communal pain--and theirs. We have to, if not for us, and it on their shoulders that we stand. And so I tell my son the legacy of lynching. I open that historical wound again so that I may close it once more with a new understanding of the way things used to be, and with an inspired hope of the way things can be.

Source: Scarring the Black Body: Race and Representation in African American Literature

Dr. Carol E. Henderson is an Assistant Professor of African American and American Literature at the University of Delaware, Newark campus. She has published articles is such journals as Modern Fiction Studies and Religion and Literature. Her recent publications include a 7,000 word critical biography on the noted cultural theorist bell hooks in Dictionary of Literary Biography series, and a forthcoming article entitled "In the Shadow of Streetlights: Loss, Restoration, and the Performance of Identity in Black Women’s Literature of the City," in Alizes, Journal of the Universite de La Reunion, France.

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Greenback Planet: How the Dollar Conquered

the World and Threatened Civilization as We Know It

By H. W. Brands

In Greenback Planet, acclaimed historian H. W. Brands charts the dollar's astonishing rise to become the world's principal currency. Telling the story with the verve of a novelist, he recounts key episodes in U.S. monetary history, from the Civil War debate over fiat money (greenbacks) to the recent worldwide financial crisis. Brands explores the dollar's changing relations to gold and silver and to other currencies and cogently explains how America's economic might made the dollar the fundamental standard of value in world finance. He vividly describes the 1869 Black Friday attempt to corner the gold market, banker J. P. Morgan's bailout of the U.S. treasury, the creation of the Federal Reserve, and President Franklin Roosevelt's handling of the bank panic of 1933. Brands shows how lessons learned (and not learned) in the Great Depression have influenced subsequent U.S. monetary policy, and how the dollar's dominance helped transform economies in countries ranging from Germany and Japan after World War II to Russia and China today. He concludes with a sobering dissection of the 2008 world financial debacle, which exposed the power--and the enormous risks--of the dollar's worldwide reign.  The Economy

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Sex at the Margins

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 4 March 2012




Home Yvonne Terry Table  Lynching

Related files: Contents  Acknowledgments  Coda  Scarring the Black Body Reviews