The Brooklyn Museum mounted an exhibit on white racial terrorism this summer. It draws on research done by the Equal Justice Initiative, documenting 4,425 lynchings of black people by white mobs between 1877 and 1950. The researchers found hundreds more of these public murders than we knew about previously, in dozens of counties. They charted it all on an interactive map.
You can stand in the quiet of the museum exhibit’s entryway and zoom in on each blood-red county. Twenty lynchings in Polk County, Florida, 29 in Jefferson County, Alabama, 10 in Calhoun County, Arkansas. I lingered on the Indiana-Kentucky border that my family migrated across after World War II. At one point in the 1920s, nearly a third of native-born white men in Indiana were in the Ku Klux Klan; the governor was among them. The poem that later became Billie Holiday’s haunting “Strange Fruit” was inspired by a 1930 photograph of a crowd of white Hoosiers in Grant County, Indiana, posing under the corpses of two black teenagers, aged 18 and 19, whom they had just lynched. So as I lingered over the map, I fixated on the geography of this terrorism. Was the violence on Indiana’s southern border a message to black families like mine, who were migrating out of the Kentucky coal mines and up toward Indianapolis’s industrial expansion?
“The demographic geography of this nation was shaped by racial terrorism,” author and activist Bryan Stevenson told me recently, in describing his team’s research at the Equal Justice Initiative. “Black people in Brooklyn, the black people in Chicago and Cleveland and Los Angeles, went to those cities not as immigrants, but as refugees and exiles from terror.” In Indiana, they were greeted with terror as well. Stevenson’s team documented more than 300 lynchings concentrated in eight Midwestern and Mid-Atlantic states—public spectacles like the one in Grant County, meant to tell families like mine that we were not welcome.
The Brooklyn Museum selected several works from its permanent collection to accompany the Equal Justice Initiative’s research. So as you move through the space—between video installations in which black people testify to the way racial terrorism shaped their family histories—you also watch Kara Walker, Rashid Johnson, Titus Kaphar, and other black artists wrestle with their relationship to this violence, to its legacy in black families, lives, and communities.
I left wondering if white people feel similarly bound to this history, similarly compelled to personalize it. Do they think about where their parents and grandparents were at the time mobs were hanging black bodies off of bridges, and leaving them there to rot as public testaments to shared values? Would they stand in front of that map and stare at the counties near their hometowns, or their parents’ and grandparents’ hometowns, and ask—as I inescapably did; as any black person intuitively would—what’s my connection to this terrorism?