This post is not a review or a critique, just a few insights gleaned from Sims’ incredibly important project (published 2016).
Over the course of 18 months (July 2009 – February 2011), Sims traveled around the country collecting oral histories from people in locales as varied as New Jersey and Louisiana, Texas and Nebraska. She spoke with those who had witnessed lynchings, grown up hearing about lynchings, and whose childhoods were shaped by the fear of this “grotesque form of inhumanity.” These narratives are situated in the context of faith, particularly the faith of the black community. Sims explores how the realities of racist hatred and injustice shaped faith, hope, and concepts of justice. Sims made a few connections for me that, sadly, I had not made myself.
Sims connects the extra-judicial killings of the lynching era (roughly 1890-1930) to what she terms the “neo-lynching culture” of today. In the decades when lynchings were common, the local law enforcement was often complicit in the mob killings, yielding up their black detainees to white mobs. Sometimes, the police were simply overwhelmed by the mobs. Regardless, those appointed to protect and serve proved time and time again that they would protect and serve one segment of the population and not another.
The comparison between the lynching culture of the late-19th/early 20th century and the contemporary issues related to police shootings/beatings of black men is not a perfect one-to-one comparison. However, the resultant culture of fear is remarkably parallel.
In the early part of the 20th century, men and women of color lived in fear, especially but not only in the south. Black men (and women) were executed in the cruelest ways possible, without trial, without due process, merely on the suspicion of having committed a crime or offense against a white person, most often a white woman. One participant described walking past the lynching tree many evenings on his way to get coal oil for the lanterns as “very frightening and intimidating..a feeling of excruciating fear.” In fact, the terror was part of the point – fear was used as a psychological weapon.
Parents handled this fear differently. Some talked rather openly with their children about the details of a local mob or why their neighbor had gone missing, while others sheltered their children from details. Still, all parents of black children taught their sons and daughters how to navigate the space safely – how to show deference to whites when they encountered them in a store, what parts of town to avoid, etc.
If you listen, similar fears exist today, particularly in interactions with police. In an interview with CNN, Kerwinn Webb says he understands why young black men run from police. Speaking specifically of Jayland Walker (Akron, OH). “It’s the terror of knowing that no matter what you do, this may not end well,” said Webb, who heads a job and life skills program for young Black men in Asbury Park, New Jersey. “It’s an ingrained fear for your life. What is the best way for me to try to survive? It’s the reality of being Black in America.”
The culture of fear still exists, and, as a result, parents continue to teach coping strategies. There are the practicalities – how to respond to police, how to avoid confrontations, etc.
There is also the reliance on faith to help combat fear. Many of the participants communicated that their faith in God’s presence with them in the suffering helped sustain them. The hope that God would not allow these injustices to go on forever kept individuals from falling into despair. Faith was not, in itself, a panacea. One minister cautions against allowing faith to make one passive in the struggle for justice. Instead, faith bolsters a “resilient resistance…an ability to name and respond to evil in a manner that challenges practices that are neither just nor faith.”
Sims’ makes another profound connection, or rather the participants in her study do. Many in the black community drew great strength from the suffering of Jesus. While members of their community were seized by mobs, condemned without fair trials, and executed cruelly, they identified closely with a Savior who suffered in the same way. They knew he could sympathize with them, and they felt bonded to him by this suffering. Pastor Holmes of Texas insisted, “I follow the crucified savior because we can identify with the crucified savior…that why religion that does not make that identity…to me is just inauthentic.”
Sim’s work is a work of empathy. I don’t know what it was like to live in the shadow of a lynching tree, nor do I know the response of fear to police lights in my rearview. But this book helps me begin to empathize.
In addition, her work is a call to the church to remember, confess, speak, and act. We must be certain that our faith is cruciform. Speak to and of Jesus’ suffering. Do not allow our faith to be mere platitudes or an elixir to numb us to the current struggles of the world. Instead, it ought to strengthen us in our work for the common good of all.