Why It Matters That The New York Times Refused To Refer To "White People" When Reporting On Lynchings In America

iStock
iStock

As horrified as I've always been by the fact that thousands of Black Americans were lynched — unjustly murdered by mobs for crimes they did or didn't commit — I recently learned that I haven't quite been horrified enough. Very aware of much of the chilling history associated with that act of America terrorism — the parties that would take place at the lynching site, the postcards made of lynched bodies, the souvenirs made out of the body parts of Black men, women, and children, etc — I've always associated lynching with hanging. Probably because the images of lynched people I've seen show them hanging from a tree. I was aware that beatings and other forms of physical punishment would usually take place before the hanging, but the extent of the brutality, the inhumanity, and the torture — and how commonplace this torture was — never stuck with me the way it stuck with me after reading something last week.

Advertisement

From "Yes, ISIS Burned a Man Alive: White Americans Did the Same Thing to Black People by the Thousands"

This account of the horrific murder of Sam Hose by White Americans is an even more grotesque and exaggerated version of the cruelty visited upon Muadh al Kasasbeh by ISIS:

The white-owned newspapers of the South had long gorged themselves with exaggerated or fabricated accounts of such violence. In the papers' version, the fight between Sam Hose and his boss became transformed into the most enraging crime of all: the rape of the white man's wife.White Georgians tracked Hose down and prepared for his lynching. Two thousand people gathered for the killing, some taking a special excursion train from Atlanta for the purpose. The leaders of the lynching stripped Hose, chained him to a tree, stacked wood around him, and soaked everything in kerosene. The mob cut off Hose's ears, fingers and genitals; they peeled the skin from his face. They watched, a newspaper reported, ''with unfeigning satisfaction'' as the man's veins ruptured from the heat and his blood hissed in the flames.

''Oh, my God! Oh, Jesus,'' were the only words Hose could manage. When he finally died, the crowd cut his heart and liver from his body, sharing the pieces among themselves, selling fragments of bone and tissue to those unable to attend. No one wore a disguise, no one was punished.

And more today, from "When America behaved like ISIS: Jesse Washington and the Bible Belt’s dark history of public lynchings"

Take a good look at Jesse Washington’s stiffened body tied to the tree. He had been sentenced to death for the murder of a white woman. No witnesses saw the crime; he allegedly confessed but the truth of the allegations would never be tested. The grand jury took just four minutes to return a guilty verdict, but there was no appeal, no review, no prison time. Instead, a courtroom mob dragged him outside, pinned him to the ground, and cut off his testicles. A bonfire was quickly built and lit. For two hours, Jesse Washington — alive — was raised and lowered over the flames. Again and again and again. City officials and police stood by, approvingly. According to some estimates, the crowd grew to as many as 15,000. There were taunts, cheers and laughter. Reporters described hearing “shouts of delight.” When the flames died away, Washington’s body was torn apart and the pieces were sold as souvenirs. The party was over.

Again, I was already aware that this level of brutality existed. But even the most aware and most educated people need reminders; a hint or a note or a newsstory or a great aunt to help remember what might have been storied away.

This is one of the many reasons why Vox's Jenee Desmond-Harris is right to call out the New York Times for publishing a story about the lynching of Black Americans, but neglecting to mention that White Americans did the lynching. As she states, "…if we don't become more comfortable being explicit about the racial identity of the people doing the oppressing, we're failing to tell the whole story."

Advertisement

The whole story, matters. Because, well, if the whole story isn't told, repeated, written, reported on, spoken aloud, and recollected…we won't know the whole story. And we — all of us — need to know the whole story of our history — each shameful act, every forgettable time period — so we won't allow ourselves to forget.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)

DISCUSSION

justtee82-disqus
Michelle is my First Lady

"And we — all of us —need to know the whole story of our history — each shameful act, every forgettable time period — so we won’t allow ourselves to forget."

I can't speak for everyone but, IMO, we're not doing a good job of sharing and passing down our history to the generations that follow us. It actually scares me how much of our history is lost or has disappeared. This line hit me the most because over the weekend I took my niece and nephews to the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore. As we walked through the museum, my nephew sat there, unaffected, and couldn't care less about "his" history. To him, the slaves were a weak people who suffered through unnecessary events. He believes they could have gotten themselves out of the situation by coming together (like an Army) and destroying the white man, killing off all of the slave masters, and taking over the country. I'm aware he is coming from a position of privilege; not having an idea all that our ancestors sacrificed and went through and today we reap the benefits. Sadly, he is not the first young person I've heard this from - many of our young people feel that slaves were weak-minded people who knew no better. It hurts that he and many of his peers are completely oblivious to the history of Black Americans and slavery, the terrorism our people dealt with, and yet despite all the odds set out against us, we've prospered.