This past week I wrote an article for the Daily Collegian covering an event on the upcoming documentary, Ashes to Ashes, which shows Dr. Shirley Whitaker’s effort to honor and mourn the nearly 4,000 reported African American people who were lynched between 1866 to 1950.
This event was both really intense and beautiful. In Springfield in 2017, Dr. Whitaker organized a funeral service for the people killed, and part of the documentary showed that experience, with some individuals' names being called and remembered (this was big for Dr. Whitaker; she told me she wanted to make sure “the people killed are not forgotten”). The other part of the documentary was her meeting with artist and author Winfred Rembert, who is the only known survivor of a lynching. (The photo for this blog is a piece of his artwork).
The connections from this event run deep to UMass. For one, Dr. Whitaker is married to the head of the Math Department here, and many of the faculty here were present at the funeral because it was next door in Springfield. Additionally, Dr. Whitaker’s etchings and art collection were just purchased by UMass Amherst and will be available for viewing at the library.
I was really moved, and still am, by the raw emotion in every part of the documentary pre-screening and ensuing discussion. Rembert said he likes to think of himself as a history book, jokingly, but he really has been through so many parts of history that our school systems teach us to think of only as part of the distant past. He grew up among sharecroppers picking cotton in Georgia, he was almost lynched, he was arrested during the Civil Rights Movement, and he was in a chain gang. Rembert and his art are such a strong testament to so much in this country, and so much strength.
He spent some time describing his life and what he has been through, and I am still blown away by what he has had to endure. At one point at the funeral service, his wife was moved to singing and sang a brief song for the audience. The ability for this man to continue with life, laughing and smiling and making art, will continue to inspire and awe me easily my whole life.
There are so many reasons to remember this history, and clearly to pay attention to the present manifestations of it.
In my freshman year, I covered an event that I keep thinking about as I go to more events like the Ashes to Ashes documentary, or I see things happen, like the racist incidents on campus this past semester. It was called “Slavery’s Legacy on U.S. College Campuses” and it discussed how universities were largely created and continued to spread racist ideas and uphold slavery, as those were the ideas being taught in universities and slavery was the industry funding the schools. The talk was given by Craig Steven Wilder, who wrote the book Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. Dr. Whitaker said, “We don’t want to acknowledge this dark history, but as a physician, if you go to a physician and you walk into their room and they don’t ask you your history, you should get up and walk out, because that history is what is needed to help you to heal, and this is our history.”
The motivation for writing about this is mostly for personal reflection. The only plug I'll make is to encourage more people to look into this history, even if you think you know enough, especially because it's so poorly taught and has so many repercussions today. Take an African American history course (or many). I haven't yet, but taking a class with Amilcar Shabazz is top of my to-do list in college. I've heard nothing but amazing praise for all the faculty in that department.
Below are some related books about race, racism, and history that continue to inform and challenge my world view, and I strongly recommend them to anyone:
- Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi
- The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
- The Autobiography of Macolm X
- The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein
- Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver
- Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
- The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon