Let’s travel back in time to 1930, in central Texas. Fourteen years earlier, Jesse Washington*, a young man with mental retardation was on trial in Waco for murdering an elderly white woman; but a mob dragged him from the court, tied him to a rope, and tied the rope to the strongest branch of a tree near the courthouse. He was lynched after being repeatedly lowered by a rope into a fire built under the tree branch where he was hanging and having his fingers cut off when he tried to climb up the rope to get away from the flames. His genitals were also removed.
Once he was dead, his body was dragged behind a vehicle back to the small town where the elderly white woman he was accused of killing lived. It’s possible he murdered the elderly woman. But he was denied the right to a fair trial and given cruel and unusual punishment without the benefit of a guilty sentence.
Such was life in Texas and other states, as well, at that time. A photo on a lynching postcard shows Washington’s burned body hanging while the mob that lynched him poses for the camera. There are children in the photo along with the men who tortured and murdered him. This kind of cruelty was so common and so usual then, lynchings often became festive occasions with families bringing baskets of food to have a picnic and people selling hot dogs, barbecue, and watermelon to anyon who didn’t bring food. There were also trophies collected, pieces of flesh and bone, even genitals. Photos were taken and sent to relatives “up north.” A collection of lynching photos toured the country a few years ago without much fanfare. Why? Because no one wants to talk about this chapter of American history. We’ve moved past slavery (without really discussing its lingering effects), but even after a noose was hung on a tree at a high school in Jena, Louisiana, many white Americans didn’t get why that upset African-Americans. In our culture, the noose is the Swatsika.
It represents the horrendous deaths of over 3,000 blacks and over 2,000 whites (mostly Jews and Italians) and Hispanics, not just in southern states, but in Illionis, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, and California, as well as other northern and midwestern states.
In my novel, lynchings are an essential part of the plot and a fact of life for black people who live in the small rural community in Central Texas where my mother was born in 1930, and where I was born twenty-one years later.
It’s the horror of a make believe lynching in the novel that causes a little black boy to go into a state of shock, so full of fear, his fear coalesces into an amorphous entity that inhabits the body of the vilest, cruellest, and most demented person in the community, a wealthy young white man who kills the boy’s father and three brothers, aided by three peers.