Strange Reactions to Strange Fruit

While the investigation into Otis Byrd’s hanging death is ongoing, the court of public opinion is already rushing to judgment.

The same week that rapper A$AP Ferg declared that “racism been over,” Otis James Byrd’s decomposing body was found hanging from a tree in Claiborne County, Mississippi. The media speculated as to whether this was a possible suicide, but not unlike when a black or brown person dies in police custody amidst claims of self-inflicted gunshots while handcuffed behind the back, there are those among us who have a familiar, sinking feeling of where this is headed.

The FBI has asked for patience as 30 investigators pore over the details of the case. Yet, especially for us blacks, the pain is in the waiting. This feels all too much like waiting on the now-tainted Ferguson grand jury to announce its non-indictment of Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Mike Brown. Just get it the hell over with. Such a delay feels like adding insult to injury with a well-established precedent, the promise of liberty and justice for all but us.

In the case of Otis Byrd, the ghosts of Mississippi (and of Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, the Carolinas, and elsewhere) point to a lynching, as they did in 17-year-old Lennon Lacy’s hanging death in August 2014, his body found strung from a North Carolina swing set wearing shoes a size and a half too small for his feet. The media’s rush to dig up dirt on 54-year-old Byrd’s past, of which there is an appreciable amount, stirs up doubt. And while there’s hope that justice is served, the past lends itself to the expectation that this will not be investigated as a lynching. Lacy’s case, ruled a suicide, was closed in five days. He was depressed, you see. But he was also dating a white woman.

In general, there seems to be this need to drive a wedge between then and now in America, but particularly with lynchings. We’d like to stamp an expiration date on lynching in our collective consciousness. Even more convenient is it to kill off the sentiment behind these acts of brutality in one’s own mind, to feel like things have changed as much we’ve told ourselves they have. But the headlines of the last year alone, from Eric Garner to Tamir Rice, have been a firm reminder that institutional aggression toward minorities in America never stopped—perhaps different in degree, but not kind.

The same way waves of anxiety must have afflicted my mother upon hearing about the deaths of young black citizens like Mike Brown, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, or Trayvon Martin, when I saw Otis Byrd’s face, I thought of my father and felt fear strike me to my core. The toughest person on Earth in my eyes, closer in age to Byrd than other recent, well publicized black souls taken too early, I’ve asked myself, ‘If this was my old man, would they have dug up some ancient mugshot from his years in rural Virginia, ignoring all the photos of the happy family man at their disposal?’

In death, with further indignities foisted upon him, Byrd is a reminder, like Lennon Lacy, of how far we as a society (particularly white Americans) have to go. That publications like The Daily Mail referred to Byrd as a murderer first speaks volumes. Yes, he’d spent 25 years in prison for the 1980 murder of Lucille Trim, a white shop owner whom he’d robbed reportedly for money to pay his probation officer fees. Ain’t that America?!

That Byrd is an “ex-con” seems to be convenient for those denying black humanity, either overtly or subtly. Even “liberal” mainstream media outlets didn’t hesitate to use Byrd’s mugshot, as they’ve done before with “more innocent” black victims. His past has done the work for them it would seem. No matter the outcome of the investigation, this lot can hang their hats on the “post-racial” fallacy with smug, if grim, satisfaction, the puerile distinction between “good and evil” decided in the court of white public opinion. Racism is dead because they said so.

It is no accident that a recent YouGov survey of nearly 1,000 Americans found that 57 percent of white Americans think society “spends too much time talking about race,” while 49 percent of black Americans feel not enough time is spent discussing it. Blacks are not afforded the luxury of being “tired” of talking about race, no matter what Pharrell, Raven-Symoné, and other practitioners of the asinine school of “New Black” would have you believe.

Since the news of James’ death hit the internet, there have been blips on the nut job, white supremacist mouthpiece radar, accusing the liberal, “race-baiting media” of stoking certain anti-white fires and quite frankly dragging up old business. Why does everything have to be about race? Even the possibility of a recurrence of an ugly, generations-long tradition that was strictly about race: the lynching of black Americans by white Americans.

Rest assured trolls, I would take no solace in the FBI’s evidence pointing to a 21st century lynching the same way I wouldn’t take comfort in Byrd’s death being ruled a suicide. A man’s life was ended, in a public and apparently painful fashion. It is these aspects of his death that were mainstays of the macabre theater of lynching, and minimizing that as “race-baiting” will not stand. There may not be a crowd gathered to gawk at the strange fruit today, but there certainly seem to be plenty of vultures ready to pick apart the humanity of black victims of racially motivated violence, all while denying the very existence of racism because we have a black president, who they also hate. Whew.

It would seem then that the racism deniers’ movement has its own modern approach. Yes, they’ll say, racism was a virulent force in the past, but whites face more discrimination than blacks today. “Things” are better than they used to be, they claim. But what things are we talking about exactly? Today, incarceration rates along racial lines in America are being mentioned in the same breath as apartheid-era South Africa. As in, things were better on this front there, then, than they are here and now.

In reflecting upon Byrd’s death, perhaps the biggest mistake that white America can make is to believe that it has no dog in this fight. Sure, black folks are still pushed to the margins by omnipresent racism, by violence, by an endless cycle of incarceration and recidivism. But white America’s present morality is at risk of being compromised in a climate of denial and diffusion of responsibility. A grim fate seems imminent if this course remains unaltered, forcing all of us to ask ourselves how long we want to continue living in an America that so egregiously misses the mark of excellence it has held itself and the rest of the world up to. How long will we even be able to, while still calling ourselves American?

via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

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