A black man led on a rope: the photo from Galveston shocks the United States. It is proof that today white supremacist thinking influences parts of this country almost as much as it did during the time of slavery.
Can a country have DNA? According to Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, it can. In an interview in 2012, the American writer stated that she had always thought her country’s DNA harbored the residue of racism.
Morrison died on Monday. The New York Times honored her as a “towering novelist.” The arts sections of newspapers from all over the world joined it in praise for the only African American woman to have won the Nobel Prize in literature. The bestselling author. A symbol for change in her country, for social progress.
However, on the same day Morrison’s death was announced, another piece of news circulated on social networks. A picture. It depicted 43-year-old Donald Neely. He was being led away in the middle of the street by the police in Galveston, Texas. His hands tied behind his back. Escorted by two officers on horseback. Neely is black. Both policemen are white, and one of them is leading Neely on a rope, as if he were cattle.
In recent years, there have been many instances of violence committed by U.S. police officers against African Americans. Many people have died as a result. According to one statistic, black people are 3.7 times more at risk of being killed by the police than white people.
Neely is alive though. The photo from Galveston has become historic not because 500 African Americans were killed by the U.S. police just this year, nor necessarily because it would further prove the increase of everyday racist abuse in the U.S. under a president who often goes so far as to stoke the fire of this racism with tweets and speeches.
The photo from Galveston is historic because more than anything, its symbolism and clarity make it powerful. A black man on a rope. Two white men on horseback. This shot depicts something that people thought they would never have to see again. A picture that seems to belong to the past. A picture that was still a bitter reality 100 years ago, even more so in the 19th century. Here are the masters, white. Here is the slave, black.
But in 2019?
“Strange Fruit” is the title of a famous song recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939. It is a rather lovely ballad, as long as one does not listen to the lyrics. “Southern trees bear a strange fruit […] Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.” It is about a lynching, about black people who were hanged from trees, with a rope around their neck.
Morrison was eight years old when Holiday sang this song. She experienced the time in which the Ku Klux Klan could strike almost unhindered in the South. The time of lynchings. The time of ropes. She wrote about those years and contributed to describing and overcoming those times with her novels.
But she also saw the years that followed: The fight for civil rights in the 50s and 60s, the slow progress which she also represented, not to mention eventually Barack Obama, the first black U.S. president.
Nevertheless, a few years before her death, Morrison spoke of a racist DNA in her country. The picture from Galveston proves her right. Taken only one day after the racist terrorist attack in El Paso, it serves as photographic evidence: The United States is a country that was built on racism, a country in which police officers still casually take away a black man on a rope despite all the public discussion concerning racism.
This photo symbolizes a country where, even though slavery was abolished in 1865, black people remained essentially deprived of rights until the 1960s. It symbolizes a country which has yet to overcome the racism that has characterized it.
It is part of its DNA.