Last weekend, I took a trip to Montgomery to visit the SPLC’s Civil Rights Memorial and the Rosa Parks Museum and Library. While at the Civil Rights Memorial, I came across an image that made me think about a lot of the recent posts I have been writing. Specifically, it made me think about my last post that seeks to explain why the past is not the past, it remains with us. The photograph, taken in 1992 by Todd Robertson at a KKK rally in Georgia, shows a young boy, dressed in a miniature Klan robe, pointing at his reflection in a police riot shield. The African American officer holds the shield with two hands and looks down at the young boy.
Immediately, conflicting thoughts ran through my mind. In the memorial center, the image follows a wall that contains four or five individuals who died at the hands of others due to hate in recent years. It also appears right before you enter a room and have the opportunity to digitally sign a pledge to fight hate and oppression in any form. Within this space, the two main thoughts I had about this image coalesced. On the one hand, I can see this image as representation of possible hope for the future. The young boy appears innocent, even as he wears Klan garb. On the hand, though, I see the image as a perpetuation of racist thought and ideas devoid of hope.
As much I want to see the picture as a positive message for the future, I cannot do that. The more I pondered the image, and other things I saw while in Montgomery, the boy came to represent a cycle that continues to this day. My reasoning here centers on the positioning of the boy in this moment. Drawn by his reflection, he walks up to the shield and points at himself, not the trooper holding the shield. In fact, the boy does not even appear to acknowledge the man who holds up the reflective device; rather, he zeroes in on the image that the surface displays, himself. The African American officer could be invisible to the boy.
Immediately after Robertson snapped this picture, the boy’s mother scooped him up and went into the crowd. What this scene, and the story of the photo, reinforces is the ways that racist thoughts becomes ingrained in us not from any natural, biological factor but from our environment and what we learn from those who influence us as we grow up. The boy does not, at least at this stage, understand or know why he wears the robe and attends a Klan rally, but eventually he will.
The boy in the photograph brings to mind Jesse in James Baldwin’s “Going to Meet the Man.” At the beginning of the story, Jesse, the town’s sheriff, struggles to get an erection and have sex with his wife. In order to accomplish this, he begins to think about the violence he has seen and enacted upon blacks. One memory recounts the time that his father, also the sheriff, and mother took him to see the lynching of a black man.
On their way home one night the family hears singing in the distance, and the eight-year-old Jesse begins to think about his “black friend” Otis who he “wrestled [with] in the dirt,” but thinking about “Otis made him sick.” Jesse tells his parents that none of them had seen Otis recently, and his parents inform him that Otis’ parents didn’t want him to be seen. Jesse innocently responds by claiming that Otis didn’t do anything wrong like the man in jail, and Jesse’s father uses the moment to instruct his son; he responds, “We just want to make sure Otis don’t do nothing. . . . And you tell him what your Daddy said, you hear?” Bringing the violence of the lynching that will soon occur together with Otis, Jesse’s father instructs the eight-year-old on his position in relation to Otis and the African American man.
The next day, the white members of the town gather to lynch the man. Jesse’s parents pack a picnic and head out to the event. His mother wore her church clothes, and before they left, she made sure the dog had enough water while stroking its head, showing that she care more about the dog than the man she is about to assist in murdering. After the lynching, Jesse thinks about the “ritual” his father just took him through: “At that moment Jesse loved his father more than he had ever loved him. He felt that his father had carried him through a mighty test, had revealed to him a great secret which would be the key to his life forever.” Jesse’s father instructs his son how to hate, and that hate leads Jesse, at the end of the story, to be able to have sex with his wife.
Before his initiation, Jesse played with Otis and did not see anything wrong with it. However, after the lynching, Jesse begins to think about the differences between him and his friend, letting his father’s thoughts seep in and spread like a virus throughout his mind. Jesse’s movement from innocence to racism makes me think about what will/did happen to the boy in Robertson’s photo. It also makes me think about what happened to the children in photos of racial violence.
At the Rosa Parks Museum, they have an exhibit on the fabric of racism. One of the pieces shows five neckties with images from lynching postcards on them. Framed in such a way, the image in the middle is of a victim while the ties on either side highlight the perpetrators. The tie on the far right shows a white man looking up at the feet of a dangling black victim as the face of a white boy, to the white man’s bottom left, smiles for the camera. What did this experience teach this boy? What did his parents, before this event, teach him? What did he, when he grew up, teach his progeny? These are all questions I have.
What does it teach a child when a parent uses coded language to refer to African Americans or others? What does it teach a child when a group of students protest the injustice in this country and they get blasted with death threats because they are not “patriotic”? What does it teach a child when the courts rarely convict individuals of killing African Americans? What does it teach a child when textbooks claims enslaved individuals were simply “workers,” implying they arrived in American voluntarily? What does it teach a child when right across the street from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL, there sits a stone monument commemorating Jefferson Davis’ inauguration as the President of the C.S.A.?
What do these things tell a child? They tell a child that they are “superior” and that rather than looking at the person holding the shield, they only have to look at their own reflection, thus ignoring everybody else and focusing on their own “superiority.” This is why the past is not past? The methods have morphed and adapted into new forms, and we must be vigilante to confront and challenge these mutations if we ever want to move forward.
I want to conclude with something I overheard at the Rosa Parks Museum. The museum was celebrating Juneteenth, and I overheard a woman speaking with a family and a couple of children. She asked them if they understood the importance of Juneteenth and what slaver was. They responded in the negative, and she informed them that unless we acknowledge the past and learn from it, we are doomed to repeat it. If we sit idly by and allow the negative aspects of our past to continue to influence our present, we will be doomed to repeat that past, albeit in a different manner.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.