The Fear Of Seeing My Name At The Lynching Memorial And Why Slavery Isn't A Choice
“What if I see my own name?”
As I entered the nation’s first lynching memorial in Montgomery I began to think about this — about the possibility of seeing my own name on one of the 800 six-foot weathered steel monuments displayed throughout the memorial. Black people in America are descendants of slaves. Our mere existence is a reminder of this country’s racial brutality; of its continued dehumanization of black bodies.
Recently, Kanye West declared that he believed slavery was a choice.
“When you hear about slavery for 400 years. For 400 years? That sounds like a choice,” the rapper said during a recent appearance on TMZ. “Like, you were there for 400 years and it was all of y’all?”
“We can talk about history but not too long. We need to talk about our now,” he added.
West was rightfully called out by TMZ senior producer Van Lathan, who said the following about the Chicago rapper:
“Kanye, you’re entitled to your opinion, you’re entitled to believe whatever you want. But there are real-life consequences behind everything you just said…Frankly, I’m disappointed, I’m appalled, and I’m unbelievably hurt by the fact that you have morphed into something that, to me, is not real.”
Prior to this, West tried to compare himself to slaves who were lynched and violently attacked.
As much as Kanye West believes slavery was a choice and that we shouldn’t focus on America’s past wrongs, he’s incorrect. Four hundred years later and we, as a nation, are barely skimming the surface of how white supremacy continues to harm black people in this country. It’s difficult to move forward when the problem hasn’t been solved.
Walking through the memorial I was confronted with this truth. Reading the names of thousands of lynching victims from counties across the South became exhausting and overwhelming. These were people who, up until now, had their identity stolen from them and treated as a spectacle for the white gaze. Now, they’re finally being recognized — and that’s powerful.
I never saw an Elijah Watson while I was there. But I did see people who shared my first name:
Elijah Sturgis, lynched on September 20, 1916, in Randolph County, Georgia
Elijah Durdem, lynched on December 2, 1914, in Caddo Parish, Louisiana
Elijah Hayes, lynched on June 12, 1917, in McLennan County, Texas
Elijah Strickland, lynched on April 23, 1899, in Coweta County, Georgia
Elijah Clark, lynched on July 23, 1900, in Madison County, Alabama
Elijah Anderson, lynched on June 30, 1920, in Wharton County, Texas
I thought about each Elijah I saw and how they had their lives violently taken away from them. I wondered what they were doing before their deaths and who they were. Were they young, old? Were they fathers? Were they spending time with their families? Were they with friends? Were they resting? Were they working?
These men and their stories were erased for centuries and stripped of their privilege of life — all for the twisted and barbaric amusement of white people. In light of West’s recent comments, I thought about the memorial and the Elijah’s. How black people were conditioned to see slavery as a normalized system as well as being aware that trying to escape slavery came with severe punishment and, sometimes, death. How even after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued and the Thirteenth Amendment was adopted, the South still found ways to suppress black people — convict leasing, peonage, and sharecropping — and force them into involuntary servitude. How the root of slavery was never upended and evolved into so many injustices against black people: lynchings, Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and the mass incarceration epidemic of today.
There are still practices in place in America to make black people feel inferior and scared. To say slavery is a choice undermines its complexities and the grasp it still has in this country.
“I am my ancestors, I am their survival, I am their will,” Lathan later said to TIME about his confrontation with West. “I am the descendant of slaves who refused to die and we all are if you’re black and in America. Any speech that is used to weaken them and make them culpable for the wretched and putrid circumstances, I don’t feel like I could really tolerate that.”
There’s still so much work to be done in America in regards to the treatment of black people, and the lynching memorial is a sobering reminder of that. West should pay it a visit to realize the ignorance of his statement.