I just began reading The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone and I am instantly amazed by the comprehensive description of the pervasive and pernicious power of the lynching tree in American History. I love Cone’s lyricism, and his love for the blues as a means of painting that terrible picture — how did it feel to be Black in the Jim Crow South with the very real threat of torture and death swaying over your head at all times? How did it feel (does it feel elsewhere and now?) I also love Cone’s affinity for Richard Wright, the Harlem Renaissance author who I read and loved in college. The prose in Black Boy and Native Son is absolutely gorgeous. Wright’s description of becoming a writer and his attraction to the joy of well placed words has often inspired me as a writer. This is a total tangent but I must put this quote here:
“I would write:
“The soft melting hunk of butter trickled in gold down the stringy grooves of the split yam.”
“The child’s clumsy fingers fumbled in sleep, feeling vainly for the wish of its dream.”
“The old man huddled in the dark doorway, his bony face lit by the burning yellow in the windows of distant skycrapers.”
My purpose was to capture a physical state or movement that carried a strong subjective impression, an accomplishment which seemed supremely worth struggling for. If I could fasten the mind of the reader upon words so firmly that he would forget words and be conscious only of his response, I felt that I would be in sight of knowing how to write narrative.”
Quoting Richard Wright in Black Boy, James Cone draws out the power of the lynching tree on every Black person living under its influence “I had never in my life been abused by whites, but I had already become conditioned to their existence as though I had been the victim of a thousand lynchings.” (Cone, 15)
In his first chapter, Cone quotes a whole bunch of spirituals and blues songs and artists. He really communicates his love for the medium. Cone wrote a whole other book about the blues, The Spirituals and the Blues, 1992, by the way. I can feel the investment in the brief summary found at the beginning of The Cross and the Lynching Tree.
The Blues expressed a feeling, an existential affirmation of joy in the midst of suffering, especially the ever-present threat of death by lynching. B.B. King, who saw a lynching as a child in Mississippi, gave a powerful interview on the meaning of the Blues:
“If you live under that system for so long, then it don’t bother you openly, but mentally, way back in your mind, it bugs you… Later on you sometimes will think about this and you wonder why, so that’s where your blues come in, you really bluesy then, y’see, because you hurt deep down, believe me, I lived through it, I know, I’m still trying to say what the Blues mean to me. So I sing about it.” (Cone, 17-18)
I cannot know how that feels not having experienced it myself which is why I am so grateful for Cone’s evocative, if difficult to read, description. I’m sitting with it.
And this was not a long time ago (the Jim Crow South).
And this is not a long time ago (Washington DC, yesterday, January 6).
I keep confessing how shocked I am by this sort of appallingly blatant hatred. This symbol of a lynching rope is impossible to separate from this legacy described so well by Cone. My surprise is surprising me. How often do I just look away? I can totally look away from this. I am a white man who can forget about this stuff. I don’t have the conditioning Wright describes– it doesn’t bug me way back in my mind all the time like B.B. King. I recognize that drastic difference and I mourn it. I and we need to keep turning toward it because this is not “back then” this is right now. The legacy would be real even if it weren’t erected on the national mall on Epiphany, January 6, 2021.
Another wonderful writer, Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, led his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, to create The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened to the public on April 26, 2018. According to eji.org , “[It] is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.” I’m convicted that I need to go to Montgomery to see it.
Cone goes on in the book to demonstrate that just as we are not separated from the lynching tree by time or location, the lynching tree is not separated from the cross. I haven’t gotten that far in the book yet, but I might write about it again when I’m done. I just had to put this appreciation out there now to whomever is reading this today, in the wake of what happened yesterday in Washington DC. This is what I am gleaning from Dr. Cone: the signs of the times and the signs of Cone’s writings are matching up. May we keep listening to him in his writing (may he rest in peace), and to those who take up his challenge to create a liberation theology that is “black and Christian — at the same time and in one voice” (Cone, xvii). When American Christians who are white look away from the cross and the lynching tree for too long, as I am confessing I could conceivably do, they lose their way and come up with terrible news for everyone instead of the Good News that Jesus offers us all.