Lately I keep thinking about Richard Blanco’s profound and moving poem “Easy Lynching on Herndon Avenue.” It describes his response to a present-day photo of the quiet, leafy street in Mobile, Alabama where, on March 21, 1981, Michael Donald, a 19-year-old African American, was chased down by neighbors while walking home. They strangled him, slit his throat, and hanged his body from a tree. “Why?” Blanco asks. “How could they?”
Nearly 40 years later, the murders are different in detail but similar in substance: 17-year-old Trayvon Martin shot by a neighbor while on his way home from a convenience store; 28-year-old Atatiana Jefferson, shot by police through the window of her home while she was playing video games with her nephew; 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, chased down and shot by town residents while jogging near his home; and Eric Garner, and Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd… and just this weekend, we learned of two deaths by hanging--suicide, or murder?--of young African American men, Malcolm Harsch and Robert Fuller, fifty miles apart in southern California. And here we are, still asking the same questions, along with disturbing new ones, like the question left at the George Floyd memorial on the village green in Camden, Maine, last week: "How many weren't filmed?"
Why has so little changed in 40 years? Perhaps because, as Blanco explains, it has been easy for us to refuse to “make ourselves imagine” such hatred. If we can keep it “invisible,” we can go about our day-to-day lives without having to summon the courage “to look hard and deep and long enough.”
What would it mean to look that hard, deep, and long? I can't answer the question for anyone else, and I'm not even sure what my own answer is. All I know is that I must try. Last week, a dear friend and I agreed to begin to educate ourselves—together—by reading works by African American authors. We started with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Next up is Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. It’s a first step. May the journey continue—for all of us—for however long it takes until we “look hard and deep and long enough” to finally see.