How do you make real The Death Camps, The Trail of Tears, The Middle Passage, or other moments when the banality of evil was real and not an abstraction? By attempting to play with history and "making it real" do we not in fact risk cheapening the memories of our honored dead? What can historical reenactments do to communicate the truth of these experiences?
For example, the annual reenactment of how black sharecroppers were killed in 1946 at Moore's Ford Bridge in Georgia is important, should be respected, and are good gestures in the spirit of "we will never forget!" I also acknowledge the power of rituals for helping the public to put into some context the particular dynamics of the past, and how history--and what it says about Power as well as "winners and losers"--lives in to the present.
Moreover, rituals matter to the degree that they bring together people in a ceremony to talk with one another, and also to grow as a community in processing a common experience. Anti-racism as an ethic and vocation should, and ought to, include such exercises.
Here is where you all can help me. I have a dark and twisted imagination. I can conjure up things in my mind through reading a powerfully evocative piece of literature, biography, or non-fiction that are just as real as any movie or TV show--if not more so.
I do not laugh or mock those of us who need to "see" a thing in order to accept it as real. We all have different gifts. I also do not want to minimize the noble intentions of the good people who want to remind their neighbors of the naked racism and brutal violence of lynch law--what was one of the de facto ways that white supremacy was enforced in the United States for at least a century or more.
There is a drama to historical reenactments around slavery and other tragedies which presupposes that the agents involved actually cared, that the perpetrators of violence, death, abuse, and murder, thought themselves involved in a great morality play or human theater. Some undoubtedly did--their egos demanded it.
However, I would guess that most people who lynched, murdered, raped, or killed in mass, did so simply because they could. We oftentimes impose dramatic frame upon deeds that were not at all difficult or opaque to those who were doing the killing. I will even reach a bit farther and suggest that those suffering at the end of the rope or bullet did not think of the moment in "Shakespearean" terms as they were possessed by fear, and just wanted to survive.
How can once capture the honored ancestors' experiences through a play ritual such as this one? Should a person even try such a thing?
Some questions as always.
1. What type of white folks would volunteer to play the role of murders? Isn't this a type of self-aggrandizing white guilty liberal self-flagellation?
2. What type of black folks would volunteer to play the role as victims of a lynching or a hate crime?
3. Is this an altruistic performance? Is is a performance begging for attention? Does it minimize the historical legacy of all parties involved?
4. Why are so many afraid of the possibility that the violence of lynching meant very little to those who committed those murders, that it was an "obligatory" and "mundane" act to them?
6. We want cartoon killers and cartoon victims. We do not want the killer next door to be real. Why is this?