What is the cost of witnessing and defending the dead?

-Tabias Olajuawon

by Tabias Olajuawon

This essay contains discussion of anti-Black violences, particularly lynching, and mention of r/pe

“… Ancestors, you will find us still in cages, 

Despised and disciplined.

You will find us still mis-named.


Here you will find us despite.         

You will not find us extinct.

You will find us here memorial and storied.


You will find us here mighty.

You will find us here divine.

You will find us where you left us, but not as you left us..”

-Elizabeth Alexander

In the years since the end of chattel slavery, some 4,000 plus African Americans—and/or Black people in America—have been lynched.

Lynching refers to the extrajudicial killing of a person—beyond the law. Often, but not only, by hanging. These lynchings were—and continue to be—instances of racial-sexual terror, occurring almost exclusively against Black people as a way to terrorize or warn Black communities and usually involving some form of sexual mutilation.

But beyond its racial and sexual nature, lynching operates as a form of social control, namely quieting the Black witness to Black humanity,  white terrorism, and inhumane predilections.

In short, lynching plays an important, if not primary, role in tying the Black tongue, erasing the Black testimony and obscuring the public record and experience of Black insistence, resistance and humanity. It does so while also quieting the echos the white terrorism, sexual violence and anti-Black genocide as sport, politic, and fetish.

RELATED: “Thinking Blackly”: State violence, U.S. law, and legal death dealing

Take a moment to meditate and hold and witness lynchings and moments of Black insistence on dignity, being, testifying.

Private James Neely was lynched in Hampton, Georgia, in 1898 for complaining when a white store owner refused to serve him.

Nathan Bird was lynched near Luling, Texas in 1902 for refusing to turn his teenaged son over to a mob. His son, accused of fighting with a white boy, was also lynched.

John Stoner was lynched in Doss, Louisiana in 1909 for suing the white man who killed his cow.

Mary Turner was lynched, with unborn child, at Folsom Bridge at the Brooks-Lowndes County in Georgia 1918 for complaining about the recent lynching of her husband, Hayes Turner.

Henry Patterson was lynched in Labelle, Florida in 1926 for asking a white woman for a drink of water.

Lacy Mitchell was lynched in Thomasville, GA in 1936 for testifying against a white man accused of raping a Black woman.

Earnest McGowan was lynched in Waller County, Texas, in 1937 for reporting a group of white men who attacked him.

Emmett Till, a 14 year-old boy, was lynched, shot and dragged through multiple towns in Mississippi before being tossed into a river in 1955. He had been accused of whistling at a white woman. In 2017, the white woman admitted to lying on the child.

Lynch: (of a mob) to kill (someone), especially by hanging, for an alleged offense with or without a legal trial.

synonyms: to execute illegally, hang, kill; informal: to string up.

“He was lynched by the mob.”

Lynching did not, and will not, end there, and neither does our duty to defend ourselves, to defend the dead, and to defend ourselves.

Oscar Grant, a 22 year-old Black man, was lynched—unarmed, lying face down with an officer on his back—in Oakland, CA in a train terminal on New Year’s Day of 2009. Officer Johannes Mehserle later pled not guilty to murder and was convicted of involuntary manslaughter; accidentally causing death.

Rekia Boyd, a 22 year-old Black woman, was lynched, in Chicago, IL in 2012 when an angry white man shot into a crowd. She was lynched for being present.

Renisha McBride, a 19 year-old Black woman, was lynched in Dearborn Heights, MI for knocking on a white man’s door for help after she pulled herself up—dazed and confused—from a car accident outside his house.

In 2017 eight year old, bi-racial, Black child survived a lynching by a group of teenage white boys in Claremont, NH.

In May 2018, Raymon Smith and Jarron Moreland, 21, were lynched in Oklahoma City by three white men during a gun sale, after “racking” the gun—ejecting the empty cartridge cases—a routine exercise in gun sales.

Wakiesha Wilson was found hanging in an LAPD cell on Easter Sunday in 2016. She was lynched. No one went to jail. The city agreed to pay $300,000 to the family, but failed to take responsibility. She was lynched. No one went to jail except for her aunt—Sheila Hines-Brim—when she decided to bear witness to her niece’s lynching, to say her name, to defend the dead.

On May 8, 2018, Sheila Hines-Brim was arrested after walking into a city hall meeting and throwing the ashes of her disappeared niece on LAPD Police Chief. Explaining, “That’s Wakiesha. She’s going to stay with you” as she walked away. She was later arrested for suspicion of battering a police offer.

“I used her ashes so they could be with him. So he can feel her because he murdered her. They covered it up,” Sheila reportedly said, speaking to KCAL after being released from jail. When asked if she had any regrets, according the same organizing, she simply said “No.” Sheila intended to defend the dead, she intended to bear witness, she came to testify. No cost was as heavy as silence.

“N—ers shouldn’t be going to jail for doing the right thing, but it is what it is…we’re taking a stand and we’re going to be here.”

-Monday, October 3rd, 2016

These were the final free words of Ramsey Orta—the brother who witnessed and filmed the lynching of Eric Garner—en route to sentencing from Rikers Island, as he prepared to relinquish his freedom once again. He was first arrested—in what he notes as a campaign of false charges and police harassment—just one month after recording the lynching of Eric Garner. He was arrested again, a year later, with his mother, brother, and sister in the same area Garner was stolen.

What is the cost of witnessing and defending the dead?

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In this piece, I echo the call of my mentor and former professor, Dr. Christina Sharpe in proclaiming that we too, must defend the Dead; the Living Dead and the Dead who walk without a material body.

I want us to posit Black witnessing as a form of insistence on Black being, a re-membering of what is lost and stolen and lynched—those pieces of us that remain—as testimony against governments, police and individuals who strike blows against Black bodies and communities; in economic and corporeal terms.

I want to think about how Black witnessing as a type of wake work and exultation and example of “thinking blackly”—through embodied knowledges and experiences from slave ship to mass incarceration—through the Black and beyond the white gaze.

The disciplining of this witnessing works as a nation-making process—the furtherance of white mythologies of the American dream and attendant progress narratives—and while practice of Black witnessing functions as racial justice prosecutor of the Amerikkkan state as we know it.

If flight—and the ability to move freely—is the language of freedom, witnessing is the language and weapon of justice. Put differently, the silenced yells of the lynched, the quieting of Black testimony and cutting off of Black tongues provide the foundation and barricades for the house of anti-Blackness; and as they are mobilized, called home, re-membered and made free, the house of oppression loses its hold.

Modern instances of lynching continue to render us invisible and terrorized, yet it is the power of our testimony, the demand that the terror they wrought is “going to stay with” them, as Sheila demanded, that gifts us both care and freedom. This how we protect the living by defending the dead.

*Information about the lynchings mentioned here, and many, many more, can be found be in the Equality Justice Initiative report, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror. These people are honored at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a museum dedicated to the memory of those who have been lynched.

Tabias Olajuawon, JD is creator, author and legal scholar. He is currently a PhD student in African & African Diaspora Studies.