Friday, August 3, 2012

Limits of Living History: Reenacting the Murder of Black Sharecroppers at Moore's Bridge in Georgia

One of my favorite recent discussions here on WARN explored the relative value of wonderful series of historical reenactments, role-playing games, and living history. The above video is a logical extension of those earlier topics.

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?


Anonymous said...

Whatever it takes to preserve our history, and honor those who lost their lives, and to help those who do not understand, to understand.

Anonymous said...

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?
a. The type of white folks that would play the role of a murderer of Blacks while re-enacting such an event is to secretly harbor these urges to do so in an actual event. In short, a white supremacist/revisionist placing himself at the crime scene without actually getting his hands bloodied! A sanitized atrocity/murder sort of!

b. Of course its self aggrandizing and self serving. This is what white liberals do all the time. In the end, they are no better than these ignorant, loud mouthed, so-called, conservative Republicans who are quite open with their hatred in a sophisticated manner. And in other instances, they are not so cunning.

2. What type of black folks would volunteer to play the role as victims of a lynching or a hate crime?

a. The type of Black folks that would play the role of a lynching or hate crime is simply an attention seeker.

3. Is this an altruistic performance? Is this a performance begging for attention? Does it minimize the historical legacy of all parties involved?

a. I do not believe that this is an altruistic performance. If anything, it’s an act of selfishness on both parts. The white supremacist comes away acting out an event he/she wish they could do with impunity. The hate crime victim receives acknowledgement/attention. It’s a win-win situation from a selfish point of view on both ends.

b. This is a double pronged question that deserves an equally double-edged answer. Personally, I believe that it does minimize the historical legacy of these events because it appears to be too clean, too simple or simply put, not a big deal to murder Black in the singular or as agroup.
The best tool to utilize so that these people wouldn’t be forgotten is to pass these events down through written and oral traditions at local community centers and historically Black Colleges. These events must include blood and guts details in all its goriness when told or when placed in text.

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?

It was an easy thing for Whites to perpetrate these acts against Blacks because our character as human beings was already assassinated. Remember, Blacks were considered to be just short of being an animal; subhuman, bestial, void of intelligence and consciousness. Blacks were without protection, much like today’s social environment. This is what made it so darn easy.

5. We want cartoon killers and cartoon victims. We do not want the killer next door to be real. Why is this?

We do not want the killer to be next door because we’re afraid that we could eventually become the next victim of a psychopath.

In sum, get a visual of Jews re-enacting their holocaust at Auschwitz with Dr. Mengele in Nazi SS uniform giving orders and the victims struggling against subordinate Nazi SS officers attempts to throw them into an oven where they will meet certain death. THAT RE-ENACTMENT WILL NEVER HAPPEN! Why? Because on a quiet subconscious level of the mind of the victim and white supremacist, it gives the perpetrator an extension of power over the victims, even if its decades or hundreds of years after the horrific event! –Black Sage

chaunceydevega said...


One of the participants actually chimed in here.

Check out their comment. Your thoughts?

fred c said...

All of these reenactment routines trivialize the realities that they so poorly present as theater. Whatever the subject matter. Two-dimensional portrayals by slack-jawed amateur actors do not real lessons make.

To apply this treatment to lynchings seems a particularly bad idea. How could any recreation, even by a great film company of professionals, compare to the horror of that one photo that you run sometimes? The one where the cheerful people are standing around eating BBQ with their kids, illuminated by car headlights, while some poor, bloody scarecrow of a broke-neck boy hangs from the tree?

I don't want to get into their heads; I just want to tell them to stop. It's mischief.

Razor said...


C'mon bro. You are presenting some gut wrenching heavy drama stuff, then presenting tantalizing emotive bait the sort of which will not attract the little nibbling fish who could get eaten by the bait itself. No, you put a large chunk of live and still profusely bleeding bait out there that's attracting the kind of fish with large sharp teeth in jaws so large and powerful, they could mistake the fisherman's boat for the real prey and put a hole in your boat by mistake.

Example: 2nd Anon.'s post...I feel you. Response 1a...Whew!!!! I told you CD.

In other words, the feeling I get is at that at a minimum, that given the subject matter of the reenactment, all white actors to have any sort of credibility and therefore eligibility to play one of the white roles, those actors all would have to have survived real-life experiences of having sacrificing their lives for at least four black folk..that we personally know, and further accompanied by at least 300 other whites hand-picked by black folk who deemed their attendance necessary, and finally, and also being a deal point, each of those other 300 or so white folk would all cry real tears ( real tears preferred, but will accept professionally inspired tears, emphasis on looking real ) flowing out of the intense empathy and shame they feel ( said empathy and shame need not actually be real as long as it looks profressional for the filming) Otherwise...GTFOOH.

All reeactments must have a goal of more than mere remembrance. Their has to be some real potential for a cathartic life-changing and life-improving teachable moment. Civil War reenactments are a case in point. White folk on both sides of those have their own set of perverted and illusory aims. Both are dangerous.

Agree with Fred C too.

CD, you were honest in saying
in other words that these reenactment were somewhat perverse. I believe that you were right.

W.B. Reeves said...


What's your take on the re-enactors of the 54th Mass.?

Razor said...

W.B. Reeves

Reenacting the 54th Mass.'s exploits for me are unecessary. Dress a storyteller in an authentic replica of the Union Army uniform and tell the story, or make the movie, ie. "Glory". Reenactments of war are, for me, the height of silly art and arrogance, and not fit for moral public consumption.

The story of the 54th Mass. is important to know, as is all black soldiers valiant and important contributions...especially considering the vileness of white dis-torians and the need for collective inner validation of blacks in this country under constant psychological warfare.

W.B. Reeves said...

It occurs to me that the re-enactors of the 54th Mass. may be finding the inner validation in the face of the constant psychological warfare that you speak of by virtue of their participation. They may also feel they are transmitting this validation to others.

I say may because I've not had the opportunity to inquire with them directly. Neither have I had the opportunity ask any of those who have attended these events as spectators whether or not they have felt validated by them.

It seems to me that such inquiries are prerequisite for forming a judgement of their practical value.

W.B. Reeves said...

In the case of the Moore's Ford re-enactment the, initiative came from the African American community and continues at their behest and under their leadership.

W.B. Reeves said...

Are you referring to the community in Monroe, in Georgia or Nationally?

I have to tell you that your expressed views aren't reflective or representative of the large numbers of folks who turn out for this event yearly.

Are you familiar with the Rev. C.T. Vivian? He was at the event this year. Other local leaders and organizations have participated as well. The fact is that this event wouldn't happen without its advocacy within the African American community.

I don't doubt your experience but it doesn't seem to apply here.

chaunceydevega said...

@GT. I have to agree w. Reeves a bit here.

How are you qualifying "community," "black people," etc.?

"I have never met many Black folk even credentialed Black folk who thought reenactments had value."

I have met credentialed black folks who do. And?

You also wrote:

"Black folks as a rule are not interested in revisiting our domestic holocaust experience in America."

Do you have any data to support this claim? I would suggest the opposite.

I am just very weary of essentializing in these conversations and claiming that any one person has some unique insight to speak for the wide variety of experiences and perspectives among any group. We are not the Borg.

Razor said...

W.B. Reeves

Which event are you referring to?

Razor said...

W.B. Reeves

Having re-read your previous post, I believe that you are referring to the Moore'-Ford reenactment. I believe that Rev.C.T. Vivian spoke at a church that I attended in the past. If I am correct, has a solid reputation as a social activist and a proponent of liberation theology. He is indeed worthy of respect.

Therefore, I will assume that Rev. Vivian would be familiar with the particular needs of that community, and his support of the nature that you stated, in the least, would have me then assume that there is some value in that reenactment to that particular community of victims.

CD pointed out that these and other "rituals" can serve to bring the community together by "processing a common experience"...mandatory reading so to speak for those aspiring in anti-racism.

I cannot speak for this community, only myself. Rev. Vivian's support would give me more pause to reflect upon it, his persuasive skills and personal committment would cause me to perhaps purchase a ticket to the event, but my question still would be...Rev., why didn't you just invite them to one of your sermons?... Who is it in attendance who really doesn't get it and that you are trying to reach?... Who do you owe for you to keep showing up every year?

I would ask those questions because, guess what all are in no way unique. Look around you. When it comes to being a community of victims to callous white murder, (as horrendous as the killing of these couples w/child was), you all are in the midst of a killing field. We cant't really forget them one you heard the story. You file it away like you do the rest of the historical heartbreak tales, that say the same thing...whites killing blacks with virtual impunity .Change the names, switch out a few facts, and send it to print...just about anywhere in America.

chaunceydevega said...

@GT. Again you are generalizing way too much. How do you know what the "majority" of black people feel or want on a given issue save for public opinion data?

I didn't raise that much money because I am a crappy fundraiser who didn't realize that it takes more work than I thought. The nature of this task is also more complicated than I first realized.

This is also a mid to small site. 350 and some change over two days of asking. I am pleasantly surprised and grateful for the generosity of the donors.

With the right planning and platform money is not going to be a problem.

W.B. Reeves said...

Razor, GT,

I certainly don't presume to speak for the Black community. I never intended to give that impression and if I have inadvertently done so, I heartily apologize.

If you want to know where I'm coming from you can use the link provided by Chauncey to the discussion on DKos. I'm simply offering my observations as a volunteer participant in the Moore's Ford re-enactment.

I think it's important to understand the specific reasons why this event was initiated by the community in Monroe before passing a judgement on them.

Razor said...

CD and W.B. Reeves

Fred C brought up a great example of what GT, who though speaking in somewhat generalizing terms, stated. Do we really need to take a community poll, local or national, regarding the question of whether we want to see a reenactment of the scene in photo Fred C referred to, wherein white folk are frollicking buying and eating popcorn in the foreground, with the black people swinging from ropes in the trees? That picture was only one of many in your post CD. How about the one with a black woman hanging. Her contorted face still haunts me.

Those faces and those scenes to every African American that I know and have known, are slices of horror. GT, in my experience, can generalize and say that, because it's a universal truth in our community, until it is shown otherwise...and why not?

GT was not speaking to another of your questions of which he/she could only speculate, such as what was the mindset of those persons doing the beating, torture and lynching.

2nd Anon posted the question of whether you would expect to ever see a reenactment of the genocide in Auschwitz, Germany. I saw movies where Jews had full artistic and directorial control, where I not only had great empathy but almost felt guilty myself, and you know we had nothing to do with it. Such is the power of that medium...but never a cheap reenactment. Like it was said...and you never will.