“The faintest ink is better than the best memory” was said to me by a friend’s uncle at Christmas lunch in Barbados. If ink beats memory, then pictures beat the self-induce fantasy of a nation, right? For this black history month, I question the existence of a post-racial America.
Yesterday, I began to stare at the photos of Rubin Stacy, a man born between 1899-1907 in Georgia. He left Georgia to go to Florida where there were more opportunities. Unfortunately, he was murdered July 19, 1935 in Fort Lauderdale. He was murdered because he was falsely accused of trying to harm Marion Jones, a white woman. She later reported that he came to her door begging for food.
In the foreground of the photo, you see—the bloodied body of—our Rubin hanging from a tree. In the background, you see a group of whites milling about looking on with glee at the STRANGE FRUIT. In the group of children, you can see this little white girl smiling angelically up at the beaten, swollen and patently dead face of Rubin Stacy. In addition to the pain endured by Rubin, I want to focus on this white girl, her angelic smile, her Sunday’s best wears, and her clan of ‘law-abiding’ white folks. This iconic image captures what we collaboratively seek to forget in order to embrace this color-blind, post-racial and multi-culti society.
We seek to forget what James Allen and Philip Dray captured in their respective works Without Sanctuary and At the Hands of Persons Unknown that the story of lynching is “a tale of ordinary White Americans perpetrating, in ritualized installments, the mass murder of Black Americans.”
Yeah, that’s right, ‘the white family next door’ was responsible for Rubin’s hanging not the Klan. What’s more horrifying to note is that in these lynching rituals the town’s people protected each other and often in the police and coroner’s records these crimes are often cited as killed “at the hands of persons unknown.” So how would you explain the little white girl’s smile when we can presume that she is not a child of a Klan member?
For the sake of irony, let’s call the white girl, who has the chillingly-sweet grin on her face, Angelica. Look closely at our Angelica’s smiling face, don’t you wonder what morbid thoughts are going through her mind; what particularly is she enjoying about the grotesque gore of Rubin Stacy’s murder; how she, the embodiment of everything that must be protected, is capable of such merriment at the torture and murder of a black person? In addition to those questions, I find myself asking if our Angelica is still alive; is she one of the old great-great-grandmothers who socially transmits hatred into her children’s and their descendents? We must remember that her smile is more than glee. It is more than a reaction to victory. Her smile is inextricably linked to each grotesque act that caused Rubin Stacy—the black body – pain, fear, horror, and for his—our –blood to spill.
Imagine as Rubin was marched, like Jesus, to that tree being jeered by onlookers, kicked, spat on, hit, and disfigured. But unlike Jesus, our Rubin hasn’t risen from death an iconic figured worshipped by white, brown, yellow and black folks. Instead he has been all but forgotten and again denied his humanity, because his murderers’ were protected by the law, the government and ‘law abiding’ citizens.
To be totally alone, and staring (while your eyes are intact) into the eyes of your enemies/murderers, this was Rubin’s fate. Do you see our Angelica smiling and possibly collecting her souvenir (e.g., eyes, genitals, fingers, bloodied clothing, and etc)? With such a glee-filled grin on her face, I am sure she collected herself a nice souvenir that she, if alive, probably kept as a keepsake that rivals the way Rose kept the heart of the ocean in Titanic. Captured in our Rubin’s American story and the photograph are the greatest forms of violence and marginality.
Each cut, tear, bruise, struggled breath, and possible plea for his life was a resounding slap at this imagined idea of who needs to be protected in the USA. Our Rubin Stacy, the imagined other, was and still today is often more in need of protecting than our sweet Angelica or Marion Jones, the white lady who cried-wolf (read: black) which lead to Rubin’s death. This trope, of the white women who cry-black, has continued: Bonnie Sweeten, Mary Turcotte, Susan Smith, Bethany Storro, Amy Fox and Ashley Todd. Even when some white women aren’t crying-black, some white men are right there to continue in their stead: Charles Stuart, Brian Wells, and Robert Ralston.
The silent truth is that our Rubin never got his day in court.
I’ve been staring at this picture, in one way or another, for years; we all have. Like Whitman who hears and Hughes who sings, I too hear and sing America. I bear witness to the duality that is America. I sing of the maddeningly schizophrenic reality of the country we, the descendents of Rubin and Angelica share. I sing of the ‘high tech lynchings’ that are happening across America in class rooms, in the job market, and right now in rural, suburban and backwoods areas where Angelica’s brood have been growing silently. I hear America singing the final hymn of the song that started in 1619.